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Sonoma County Supervisors Mike Kerns, Paul Kelley and Efren Carrillo decided Tuesday that San Rafael's Dutra Group can build and operate an asphalt plant at Haystack Landing, a decision sure to have consequences in the near future. Kerns and Kelley are not standing for re-election in November and Carrillo was clearly uneasy playing the role of decision maker for the board.

"Yes" was David Keller's response when asked if a suit will be filed if the supervisors affirm the straw-vote taken Tuesday on Dec. 12, as scheduled. "We hope we can change the final vote on Dec. 14, and if not, unfortunately, we will have to go to court." Keller heads the Petaluma River Council and, working with two other groups, has been a dogged opponent of the asphalt plant from the start. He brought an attorney along to argue that there was not enough time for the public to digest the 1,100 pages of documents released last week describing a revised, reduced project.

Aimi Dutra, spokeswoman for the Dutra Group, was pleased with the vote, and said the company would move forward as soon as the final vote is made in December. She expressed hope that physical construction could begin by the end of 2011. There are several other hurdles to overcome before then, however.

"We are pleased with the outcome," Dutra said. "We have worked hard to build a project that addressed community concerns."

The 3-2 vote came after four solid hours of emotional testimony at a packed house of project supporters and opponents voicing objections and supporting arguments that have been made in many public hearings over the past five years. Both Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Valerie Brown cited health reasons for voting against the project, saying that even if the projected pollution levels from the plan fall below Bay Area standards, they would still have enough of a cumulative effect to warrant denial.

Zane was also critical of Dutra's track record of having racked up millions of dollars in fines for illegal dumping in Miami's Biscayne Bay and off the Farallon Islands closer to home. A $45 million lawsuit is underway in federal court in Sacramento after a Dutra barge destroyed a houseboat in the Delta, severely injuring the owner. The barge was not supposed to be operating at night, and there was only one tug, a violation of river regulations.

Kerns said he considered Dutra's spotty track record, but was swayed by a letter from Marin County Supervisor Susan Anderson, a long-time critic of Dutra's San Rafael operations.

"We just got a letter from (Anderson) and a copy of an op-ed piece where she glowingly praised Dutra and Aimi for working with the community and county in Marin," he said. "The letter was extremely complimentary and said they'd done a wonderful job. Their (San Rafael quarry) permits passed on a 5-0 vote (Sept. 28). While there have been problems in the past, I think Dutra is doing everything they can to overcome the reputation they've developed."

There were at least 200 people packed inside and outside the board chambers in Santa Rosa at the 2:15 p.m. hearing, held in an almost circus-like atmosphere. Almost everyone wore a "yes" sticker or was waiving a "no" placard. Some opponents were wearing costumes and one man donned a gas mask.

The 37-acre project is situated next to the Petaluma River across from Petaluma's Shollenberger Park, a popular wetlands park that is home to several rookeries, and has become a favorite for joggers, hikers and bird watchers.

A centerpiece of the project is delivery of raw materials via barge, eliminating thousands of truck trips. The river maps provided by Dutra did not show the existence of two high-pressure PG&E gas lines at the proposed barge docking site, and was otherwise inaccurate to the point that no barges could be used there.

After its original barge dock site proved untenable, Dutra reached an agreement with adjacent Shamrock Materials to use its excess barge capacity and offload Dutra materials at the Shamrock yard, moving sand and aggregate to the asphalt production plant over a 800-foot conveyor belt, by trucks or both. The conveyor belt crosses over a designated wetlands and a railroad track for which there is no easement, yet.

Shamrock has the right to bring in four barges at a time four times a month, but there seems to be no set amount they can bring in. The combined use by both operations cannot exceed Shamrock's permitted use.

Dutra scaled back the project in mid-2009 by reducing the height of the smoke stacks by 14 feet to 62 feet. It also cut back maximum production by 25 percent, from 400 to 300 tons an hour. Since the on-site dock was vetoed by the Coast Guard, up to 500,000 tons of sand and gravel a year will be bought from neighboring Shamrock Materials and moved by conveyor and truck to the asphalt cooking plant, to be built by Tennessee-based Astec Corp. It also eliminated an asphalt recycling plant and redesigned a 16-foot-tall sound wall to screen piles of sand and aggregate.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District declined to do another health risk assessment based on a reduced-scope project. While not giving reasons for doing so, county staff and Mike Kerns both surmised that they were unwilling because the results could only be lesser impacts, not more and the agency was not willing to devote more staff time to it, having already produced two assessments for the project.

The county's Planning Resources Management Department endorsed the scaled-down plan, noting that Dutra agreed to purchase mitigation "credits" from Burdell Ranch Wetland Conservation Bank to build the conveyor over its half-acre wetland. Dutra will buy the stretch of property that holds the conveyor belt from Shamrock.

Supporters of the project include construction and trade unions that see jobs at the end of the day.

Firefighters from the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department were on hand to cheer, as they will build a new firehouse and headquarters on land that Dutra has promised to them.

"We're happy with the result," fire board member John Fox said after the hearing. "The location will be really beneficial to us." If the project is approved in December, the group will start fund-raising immediately to pay for construction of the firehouse.

Pamela Torliatt, mayor of Petaluma and a candidate to replace Kerns as county supervisor, presented a letter from the City Council asking for more time to consider the project. She was accompanied by Councilmember David Glass, who was more blunt in his criticism.

"This site stinks," Glass admonished. "There are alternate sites you can do this on."

"The bottom line is that this means more toxicity for children and the elderly, more pollution in the air," Torliatt said, reminding the supervisors that the project was opposed by more than 30 city officials throughout Sonoma County.

Several opponents pointed out that using the Shamrock site as an alternative was clearly rejected in the draft environmental impact report.

Kerns said that the decision to approve the project was "the hardest I've ever had to make in my 12 years on the board." He cited extensive studies, hours of public testimony and several project scope reductions as reasons for moving forward.

"This project has been studied to death," he said. "The project has been scaled down and its impact reduced from what was proposed. This project is consistent with uses in that area."

"It's not easy being the deciding vote," Carrillo said, noting he grew up near an asphalt plant in Santa Rosa and suffered no ill effects.

"We need to insure adequate resources, to preserve local roads. The public demands infrastructure."

Carrillo said the project's aesthetics were his biggest concern, "but 149 or 150 mitigations do mitigate to some extent. Any project has changes." He felt objections from other cities and public officials were hypocritical in that they have approved projects calling for paving over ecological resources.

(Contact Jay Gamel at argus@arguscourier.com)