Was the El Monte sand mining project a done deal from the start?

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A PERSPECTIVE

Numerous voices have been claiming lately the sand mining project in El Monte Valley is a done deal and the sand permit will get approved at the county level by the planning commission and the board of supervisors, despite community protest.

In August, the county planning department published the subsequent Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that requires the government to study the impact of every proposed project on the environment and to identify ways to mitigate potential impact.

A PERSPECTIVE

Numerous voices have been claiming lately the sand mining project in El Monte Valley is a done deal and the sand permit will get approved at the county level by the planning commission and the board of supervisors, despite community protest.

In August, the county planning department published the subsequent Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that requires the government to study the impact of every proposed project on the environment and to identify ways to mitigate potential impact.

The public had until Oct. 28 to send in the opposing comments that would serve as legal base in case of litigation later on.

To prepare for this long-term battle, the community of Lakeside donated $45,000 into a trust administrated by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation (CNFF) who in turn retained the legal services of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to assist in a potential legal battle.

As a first step, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP is now working on their own comment letter to the EIR after hiring scientists experienced in litigation on environmental cases.

Jack Shu with CNFF said, “We are one of the leading organizations in California that has successfully won all the way at the Supreme Court against SANDAG. We fought big cases that changed the environmental laws and the ways to proceed on projects in California.”

Shu said he shares the belief that this project is most likely a done deal, given the current context of the housing crisis where local sources for sand are becoming more valuable. The same argument is mentioned in the subsequent EIR.

Contacted to clarify if the county is able to guarantee that the sand mining company led by Bill Adams would not export the sand, Heather Stevens with the county planning department said County representatives could not gaurantee how or where the sand will be sold or used.

“The County does not enter into contracts regarding private development projects and the developer’s source of the construction materials,” she said. “The statement about the ‘County’ is referencing the region dependence on imported aggregates.”

Stevens added a reference to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions contained in the EIR. That means if the source of sand is local, trucks would travel less and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

However, without a guarantee from the sand miners that they would not export the sand, the trucks could travel longer distances outside the state and the country to other developers who offer better prices, thus producing even more greenhouse gases.

The next step in the approval process is for the county to consider the public comments to the EIR.

The county’s Land Use and Planning Department has the power to toss the letters or address them in a final EIR draft, then pass it along to the county planning commission to vote on the project.

Shu said the project is likely to fly through the approval process.

“This planning commission pretty much rubber stamps everything, so it will go past them,” he said. “This county is so bad that if our law firm would send in a great letter saying, we are going to take you to court, you’re going to lose, the county doesn’t care. Let’s face it, it’s our taxpayers’ money they are using when they go to court.”

Shu said the county has the ability to ask the developers to cover the legal fees by buying a bond.

“The developers would buy it, it’s peanuts to them,” he said. “Then the county has further reasons not to worry about litigation costs being covered by taxpayers’ money.”

The final decision belongs to the five county supervisors who will vote on the project.

Commenting on this stage in the approval process, Shu said, “The cheapest way to try to stop would be political, in a sense that if we can get two more county supervisors to vote ‘No.’”

Shu thinks three of the county supervisors are developer-friendly and would most likely approve the sand mine – Bill Horn, Ron Roberts and Kristin Gaspar.

“Currently, Jacob is the least development-friendly supervisor we have, but quite often she will vote with the developers,” said Shu.

He also mentioned that the sand miners could drop the project now if they feel the board is not friendly.

“Bill Adams (one of the land owners) could say, ‘OK, too much resistance on this EIR,’ so he stops. A year or two later, before Jacob is replaced by someone else Adams helped to get elected, he files again.”

Bill Adams is one of the partners of the El Monte Nature Preserve LLC, now a sand mining company that started out as a golf course company two decades ago, leasing almost 500 acres of land in El Monte Valley from Helix Water District to build a golf course. After the first year, the county sued the company for taking sand out of the valley without a permit. The land was never restored, and Adams’ company settled in court in2014 to purchase the land and apply for mining permits with the county. Endangered Habitat Conservancy led by Michael Beck, was cited in a non-disclosure court settlement. Despite Adams’ recent denials, evidence suggests Beck’s involvement as a partner on the project charged with the post-mining restoration. This fact is raising concerns about possible conflict of interest with Beck voting on Adams’ project.

Beck is now actively supporting a new candidate for the county board of supervisors to replace Horn in 2020. Jacqueline Arsivaud recently declared for the local media that it was Beck who convinced her to run. Arsivaud’s campaign website is listing Beck’s endorsement: “Her energy, commitment, and intelligence will prove to be an invaluable an invaluable asset (…)”

Shu believes the project could be killed at the county level only after the elections and if Nathan Fletcher wins a supervisor seat, while the community finds ways to persuade two more supervisors to vote against the project.

Otherwise, the next step is litigation and it could get very expensive for the community.

“If we go to court, CNFF is the lead plaintiff, but that doesn’t mean other groups cannot join in,” said Shu.

Shu estimates it would cost up to $100,000 to file a lawsuit. If the community wins in court, the county has to redo the EIR and the process starts all over.

It is also possible the county could appeal the judge’s decision and the whole litigation battle would be drawn out for years.

Shu believes the easiest solution would be for “the county planning department to do its job and simply say, ‘you know, this land in the valley is special and it should be zoned differently, period.’”

Right now, the land in the valley is zoned for residential, agricultural and mining.

Contacted by phone to comment on Beck’s involvement with a sand mine that would potentially destroy the habitat for countless of birds in the valley including protected and endangered species, Meghan Flaherty, Restoration Program Manager with the San Diego Audubon said it is hard to believe Beck would be involved with the mine.

“We are hesitant about publicly opposing a project which has the potential to benefit surrounding habitat via a restoration project,” Flaherty wrote.

Flaherty did not comment further with supporting evidence that sand mining is beneficial to the surrounding habitat in any of its stages.

The Sierra Club, San Diego chapter, is publicly opposing the project.

The community of Lakeside showed up by the hundreds at the recent meeting organized by the county to present the subsequent EIR. Shu thinks the local opposition will keep the pressure up, but that it may still not be enough to sway the current configuration of the planning commission and the board of supervisors.

Done deal or not, neither one of the players involved in this saga is passively waiting for the outcome and that is a sign that, despite the negative prognosis, this fight will not be over until it is over, possibly many years down the road.

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