One of the county's largest concrete producers is pressuring Sonoma County officials to shut down two of its competitors, arguing that the county has unfairly allowed its rivals to continue operating without proper permits.
Shamrock Materials, Inc. last month asked a Sonoma County Superior Court judge to order county planning officials to take enforcement action against competitors Wheeler Zamaroni in Santa Rosa and Austin Creek Materials sites in Cazadero and Santa Rosa.
San Rafael-based Shamrock claims both firms are operating facilities in violation of state and county laws. It alleges the county's Permit and Resource Management Department has failed to enforce those laws.
"They're getting an unfair advantage over the rest of us that have had to go through the permit process," said David Ripple, vice president of Shamrock. "We just want a level playing field."
Shamrock's complaint is unusual because it argues that the county's permit process is too permissive, a position not often taken by Sonoma County businesses.
"I don't think in my 25 years I've ever seen a lawsuit like this," said Pete Parkinson, county planning director.
The complaint may also reflect how fierce competition has become in an industry that has seen sales plummet following the collapse of the county's construction industry.
"When times are good and you're busy, you're not so worried about your competition because you're doing well," said Louis Zamaroni, president of Wheeler Zamaroni.
County officials say they have concerns about all three facilities cited by Shamrock, but they are working through the permitting process to bring the operations into compliance.
"We generally find that it is much more productive to work with those operations through the permit process than it is to go and shut somebody down," Parkinson said.
One of the locations at issue is Wheeler Zamaroni's quarry and landscape materials operation on Petaluma Hill Road. Since 1989, when it received a use permit, the operation has expanded without the proper permits, according to the county.
The others are Austin Creek's new aggregate distribution yard at the Airport Industrial Park and its quarry on Cazadero Highway. The yard is operating without a permit, and the quarry may be operating in violation of its existing permits, according to county officials.
Shamrock claims the two companies have been allowed to continue operating these "illegal" facilities for months. The county should instead have shut down the illegal portions of the operations after the violations became known, Shamrock claims.
"There is no question that the Wheeler Zamaroni site and the two Austin Creek sites have engaged and continue to engage in clear violations of county and state law," Shamrock's petition reads, adding that there is "no excuse" for the county's failure to shut the operations down.
But enforcing alleged code violations is not cut-and-dried, Parkinson said.
County officials aren't required by law to shut down operations over permit issues, and Shamrock has no legal basis to compel such action, Parkinson said.
The county uses a number of factors to determine whether to allow a company to continue operating facilities while permit issues are pending, Parkinson said.
These include whether there are immediate health, safety or environmental issues being created by the unpermitted facilities, and whether there are community concerns, he said. None of these are present in the three locations at issue, Parkinson said.