Roblar Road quarry back before Sonoma County officials for environmental review

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One of Sonoma County’s most controversial mining projects is showing public signs of progress again, nearly three years after it survived a hard-fought legal challenge and well over a decade after it was first proposed.

Next up for the planned quarry project off Roblar Road west of Cotati is an additional round of environmental review, which was triggered after the owner requested some changes to the conditions tied to county officials’ approval of the development more than six years ago.

Quarry developer John Barella wants permission to adjust the design of a road intersection his project is required to improve, reduce the width of a road he must expand and relocate a portion of a creek on which the project will encroach. The effects of the proposed changes will be studied by a consultant hired this week by county supervisors.

Barella, the former owner of North Bay Construction, first proposed the quarry in 2003, and a split Board of Supervisors signed off on it in December 2010, setting off a long legal fight waged by opponents concerned by the project’s environmental impacts.

But those opponents lost in July 2014, when a state appellate court upheld the county’s approval of the project and reversed a lower court ruling on all counts.

“It was controversial. I know it split a lot of people in the south county,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes the quarry site. “But it did go through a pretty lengthy and thorough process, including the courts. It’s still not out the other side entirely, but additional environmental analysis will further determine whether or not it’s adequate to move forward.”

Rabbitt was on the Petaluma City Council when the project was approved. He began serving on the board in early 2011.

Estimates from the quarry’s original environmental review showed it would generate about 11 million cubic yards of construction-grade rock, valued at about $60 million, over at least 20 years.

Barella’s team applied to modify the quarry’s use permit last summer, and supervisors approved a contract for the additional environmental review on Tuesday.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Barella referred questions about the proposed changes to his attorney, who did not respond to calls seeking comment.

But a document Barella’s team submitted to the county in September says the alterations “would in no way modify the key operational components” of the project as originally approved.

One of the changes sought by Barella’s team involves the intersection of Roblar Road and Stony Point Road, where the county is requiring installation of a traffic signal and other improvements. In the September document, Barella’s team wrote that regulatory changes put in place since the project was approved made the original design unfeasible, so it proposed a new one.

“They want to improve the intersection, but without widening it so much that they get into sensitive habitats,” said Blake Hillegas, supervising planner in the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. The change could help Barella’s project avoid certain fees, Hillegas said.

Barella’s team is also hoping to lessen the extent by which it must widen a 1.5-mile section of Roblar Road that will be used by quarry haul trucks, proposing to construct a road that’s 32 feet wide instead of 40 feet. That could allow the project to buy less private land needed to widen the road, Hillegas said.

Additionally, because widening part of Roblar Road will affect nearby Americano Creek, the developer’s team wants to reposition the creek channel so it’s farther removed from the edge of the roadway. The creek realignment was not originally envisioned because the project had intended to make use of a different route — through land restricted by a county conservation easement. That proposal was rejected by supervisors. The developer also plans to make some creek habitat improvements.

Donna Spilman, a longtime opponent of the quarry project, supported supervisors’ move to study the proposed changes rather than “just accepting them out of hand.” Ultimately, she hopes to see an additional thorough environmental report go back to supervisors for a vote.

“Any changes that (Barella) wants to make that would lessen what people might perceive as safety would be of concern to people,” said Spilman, who lives about a half-mile from the quarry site. “But until that’s really studied, we don’t really know what it’s going to be.”

The original permit for the quarry project expires in December. Barella will likely need to get it extended, according to Hillegas.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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