Disputed quarry project wins court fight

A state appellate court has handed quarry developer John Barella a resounding victory in his decade-long bid to build a controversial project off Roblar Road west of Cotati.|

A state appellate court has handed quarry developer John Barella a resounding victory in his decade-long bid to build a controversial project off Roblar Road west of Cotati.

A three-judge panel has upheld Sonoma County’s 2010 approval of the 65-acre rock quarry and reversed a lower court ruling on all counts, dealing a final blow to opponents’ three-year fight to halt the project on environmental grounds.

Barella, the former owner of North Bay Construction, praised the decision while voicing frustration with the lengthy environmental review and court fight needed to clear the way for his $60 million project.

Planning for the project is set to start this week, and ground work on the site could get underway within a year, said Steve Butler, Barella’s attorney.

“I am happy, we’re moving forward on opening the quarry,” Barella said. “But this whole situation has been unfair.”

He called the lawsuit challenging the project “frivolous.”

Quarry opponents defended their case but said they do not plan to appeal the court decision, which they called a disappointment. They said they will continue to press Barella to address their concerns, including worries about risks to groundwater and impacts on traffic and wildlife.

“We feel this is a large loss for the Roblar community, and it will greatly harm the environmental quality of this area,” said Sue Buxton, president the citizen’s group that sued the county and Barella over the project.

The appellate ruling, made final July 18, ends one of Sonoma County’s longest-running land use battles, pitting Barella - who first proposed the quarry in 2003 - and his allies in the construction industry against dozens of neighbors, environmental groups and others opposed to the development. It was approved by the Board of Supervisors on a 3-2 vote that included two outgoing members in the majority - Mike Kerns and Paul Kelley - and was one of three contested projects greenlighted in late 2010 that were then challenged in court on environmental grounds.

All of those cases have now been dismissed or settled, and the other two projects - the Dutra Materials asphalt plant outside of Petaluma and a Syar Industries gravel mine on the Russian River outside of Geyserville - are moving forward.

The rulings have provided some welcome, if delayed, vindication for the developers and their supporters.

“It’s so tough to do business here, so we’re glad this got pushed through,” said Chris Snyder, a district representative for the Operating Engineers Local 3, speaking about the quarry. The union’s members include heavy equipment operators and construction workers.

Barella and his allies have touted the Roblar Road project as a sustainable source of local aggregate and badly needed jobs. Estimates included in the environmental review for the quarry show it would produce about 11 million cubic yards of construction-grade rock, worth about $60 million, over at least 20 years.

But neighbors were especially worried that blasting and mining at the quarry could unleash unknown contaminants in an adjacent former landfill, which was used in the 1950s and then in the 1970s to dump building waste from a 1969 earthquake that rocked Santa Rosa. Opponents argued such impacts were not sufficiently studied or spelled out in the county’s environmental report.

A group calling itself Citizens Advocating for Roblar Rural Quality, including neighbors and local residents advanced those claims in a 2011 lawsuit against the county and Barella.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum, in his August 2012 ruling, agreed with several of the group’s core claims, calling studies of possible water contamination linked to the closed landfill “utterly inadequate.”

“No one knows what type of contaminants are in the landfill and at what concentrations these contaminants may be found within the landfill because the interior of the landfill has never been tested,” opponents wrote in their original lawsuit.

Daum also faulted county review of Barella’s plans to replace wildlife habitat damaged by the quarry and an analysis of potential impacts on nearby Americano Creek from the proposed widening of Roblar Road, saying it had fallen far short of what’s required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Barella and the county appealed the ruling and more than a year later, the 1st District Court of Appeal handed down a complete reversal, supporting the county’s analysis as well as the dozens of safeguards it required of Barella as part of the quarry’s approval.

“We find substantial evidence in the record to support the conclusion reached by the county that any such impacts could be mitigated to less than significant levels,” the three-judge panel wrote in its ruling.

County attorneys hailed the decision.

“Sonoma County is pleased the appellate court reversed every part of the trial court’s decision,” said Holly Rickett, the deputy county counsel who handled the case. “More than that, we are quite pleased that our Environmental Impact Report was found to have been supported by substantial evidence under the California Environmental Quality Act - that it was found to be a sufficient informational document.”

Buxton said her group still has significant environmental concerns, but will seek other ways to hold the quarry in check.

“CARRQ is now in a new ball game. We’re still working to protect our environment,” Buxton said.

Butler, Barella’s attorney, said the two plan to meet Thursday to assess a timeline for the project. It must meet 170 conditions set forth by county supervisors, including modifications to truck access from Roblar Road, safety training for workers and measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our next step is working on fulfilling those conditions of approval,” Butler said.

As part of an earlier settlement, the citizens’ group is set to reimburse Barella the $177,000 he paid to them for their attorney fees linked to the lower court ruling two years ago. Barella said he is not seeking to recoup costs for his legal fees in the case.

Then-Supervisor Valerie Brown joined Supervisors Kerns and Kelley in approving the project in 2010. Brown stepped down from the board at the end of 2012. Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Shirlee Zane voted against the quarry, citing environmental and open space concerns.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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