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Opponents of Roblar Road quarry win round in court

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on Thu, 06/21/2012 - 00:00
Brett Wilkison
Press Democrat


Dozens of anti-quarry signs line the length of Roblar Road west of Cotati.

John Burgess / PD
Published: Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5:51 p.m.

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A Sonoma County judge has sided with key points in a lawsuit challenging approval of the controversial Roblar Road rock quarry, a move that could derail the project west of Cotati.

A split county Board of Supervisors approved the 70-acre project in late 2010 over the objections of a group of neighbors and others concerned about environmental impacts.

They sued the county and quarry developer John Barella, claiming safeguards needed to address those impacts were not sufficiently studied or spelled out in the county’s environmental report.

Judge Elliot Daum agreed with several of those core claims in a four-page tentative ruling issued Wednesday, two days before oral arguments in the case.

He said studies of possible water contamination linked to a shuttered landfill adjacent to the quarry were inadequate.

He also faulted Barella’s plans to replace wildlife habitat damaged by the project and an analysis of impacts from widening Roblar Road on nearby Americano Creek.

Quarry opponents welcomed the ruling, saying it favored the main points of their case.

“We feel those are all important issues and the judge agrees with that,” said Sue Buxton, president of Citizens Advocating for Roblar Rural Quality. The group’s lawsuit asked for the project’s approval to be set aside, a new environmental review conducted and any pending or current work halted.

Daum’s final ruling likely will address those requests. His tentative order denied the group’s other claims, including concerns about traffic, noise and air quality.

Barella, the former owner of North Bay Construction, said he did not want to comment before Friday’s court hearing, set for 9 a.m.

Sally McGough, a deputy county counsel, called Daum’s ruling “cryptic,” noting it offered little explanation for what he’d found objectionable in the county’s environmental analysis.

“Yes, he’s concerned about those issues. But what is it about those issues, I don’t know,” McGough said. She acknowledged that if Daum’s ruling were to hold it would be a win for opponents.

The quarry was first proposed in 2003 and approved by county supervisors on a closely watched 3-2 vote in December 2010. It is one in a long line of mining projects that have divided county residents in recent decades.

It would produce about about 11 million cubic yards of construction-grade rock, worth about $60 million over at least 20 years.

Supporters say it would be sustainable source of local aggregate and badly needed jobs. They also point to a 1994 county policy that has called for shifting mining to upland quarries, away from the Russian River where operations can have greater impacts on the environment.

Still, two previous quarry proposals by other applicants on the Roblar Road property were shelved in the late 1980s and early 1990s after they, too, ran into opposition.

Opponents continue to focus on the former landfill, used in the 1950s, and later in the 1970s to dump building waste from the 1969 earthquake that rocked Santa Rosa.

Neighbors fear the dump contains toxic materials such as lead and asbestos and that digging and blasting to extract rock could stir toxins into the air and leach them into the groundwater.

Quarry opponents say the county has tested only the most superficial layer of water under the landfill. County officials say the testing was extensive and that ground and surface water would not be harmed by the project.

Barella’s plan to use adjacent county-protected open space to replace rare amphibian habitat also stirred controversy.

Supporters said it made the most biological sense — using a neighboring property to replace habitat lost to the quarry.

Opponents called it a sweetheart deal, claiming it saved Barella millions of dollars — because he would not have purchase new land or buy more costly habitat credits — and tampered with a county conservation agreement meant to be permanent.

The citizens group targeted the deal in its lawsuit, as did a pair of dairy families who filed a separate legal challenge. Both sought additional environmental review of the habitat deal. The second lawsuit is before a state appellate court.

Daum’s tentative ruling said the habitat deal’s impacts and efficacy had been inadequately analyzed in the project’s environmental review.

His final ruling could come days or weeks after Friday’s court hearing.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or