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Re: Roblar Road Quarry Proposal, PLP03-0094

CARRQ's picture
on Tue, 07/13/2010 - 00:00
To: 
Members of Sonoma County Planning Commission
From: 
Susan Kirks for Paula Lane Action Network

July 12, 2010                                    

Members of Sonoma County Planning Commission
Blake Hillegas, Member of Sonoma County Planning Staff
PRMD
2550 Ventura Avenue
Santa Rosa, CA  95403-2829

(submitted via email July 13, 2010)

Re:  Roblar Road Quarry Proposal, PLP03-0094

Dear Members of the Planning Commission and Mr. Hillegas:

This comment letter is presented prior to the scheduled Planning Commission hearing on Thursday, July 15, 2010.

I received copies from Mr. Hillegas of most requested documents related to the proposal's Biological Resources.  Unfortunately, I did not receive the WSA April 2010 report until Monday, July 12th.

Comments contained herein primarily pertain to the reopened EIR process, Biological Resources Chapter.  Comments result from a review of DEIR, FEIR, Biological Resources reports and proposed mitigation measures for Special Status Species.  We reserve the right to provide additional comments prior to July 31, 2010.

The Land and Habitat

The proposed Roblar Road quarry site is situated in a significant, pristine upland habitat within the Estero Americano watershed.  This context for all Biological Resource findings is important to keep in mind.   The proposed rock quarry and all activities associated with it are detrimental and destructive of this significant upland habitat area.  The conserved-eased agricultural properties of Wilson and Tresch, by virtue of agricultural preservation, have contributed significantly to support of this intact upland area with high significance in terms of conservation values and species presence and survival.

Twenty-one Special Status species have been identified as occurring or expected to occur.  These include:  California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, Foothill yellow-legged frog, Northwestern pond turtle, Cooper's hawk, Sharp-shinned hawk, White-tailed kite, Golden eagle, Burrowing owl, Oak titmouse, Lawrence's goldfinch, California horned lark, Loggerhead shrike, Allen's hummingbird, American badger, and 5 species of bat (Pallid, Pacific Western big-eared, long-eared myotis, Yuma biotis, and fringed myotis).  In addition, two Special Status fish species, central California Coast steelhead and tidewater goby, are reported to occur downstream within 7 miles in the Estero Americano watershed.   

When reporting about the federally endangered California tiger salamander, the California Academy of Sciences series, "Hot Spot: California on The Edge," indicates:  "It's All About the Land:  …Research shows that adults, and particularly juveniles, roam far and wide, migrating a mile or more from their breeding pools.  A minimum of several hundred acres of upland habitat surrounding a pool are necessary for the species to survive.  Reserves of multiple breeding ponds surrounded by 1000 acres or more of undisturbed habitat are required to ensure their survival.  Unfortunately, such large tracts of undisturbed land are extremely rare in California's Great Central Valley.  The good news is that cattle ranching and California tiger salamander can share the same land.  Ranchers are viewed as key conservation partners for the salamanders.  On the first rainy nights of winter, adult salamanders emerge and migrate to large vernal pools where they mate and lay eggs.  Adults leave soon after egg-laying, and return to their underground retreats.  After hatching, young salamanders eat small crustaceans and insects, including mosquito larvae.  Later they eat larger aquatic insects, tadpoles of Pacific tree frogs, and even each other.  Three to six months later, juvenile salamanders become adults.  They leave the pools and settle into the underground refuges of small mammal burrows before the dry summer season begins.  Their unique biology makes these salamanders extremely vulnerable to habitat modification by humans.  Juveniles take 4 to 5 years to reach sexual maturity, and most do not breed more than once in a lifetime.  In very dry years, mating may not take place at all.  These black-and-yellow California tiger salamanders are mainly terrestrial, living with a mile or so of a vernal pool.  However, they are seldom seen by people, since they live almost exclusively underground in the cool, safe burrows of pocket gophers and ground squirrels.  The California tiger salamander is one of the most distinctive, geographically-restricted species of vernal pool animals."  

The federally threatened California red-legged frog is "the largest native frog in the Western United States…(and) has sustained a 70 percent reduction in its geographic range …Only a few drainages are currently known to support California red-legged frogs in the Sierra Nevada foothills, compared to more than 60 historical records…General habitat characteristics:  The California red-legged frog requires a variety of habitat elements with aquatic breeding areas embedded within a matrix of riparian and upland dispersal habitats. Breeding sites of the California red-legged frog are in aquatic habitats including pools and backwaters within streams and creeks, ponds, marshes, springs, sag ponds, dune ponds and lagoons. Additionally, California red-legged frogs frequently breed in artificial impoundments such as stock ponds.  Upland habitats downed woody vegetation, leaf litter, and small mammal burrows; habitats that provide protection from predators and prevent desiccation (drying) of California red-legged frogs…Factors associated with declining populations of the California red-legged frog include degradation and loss of its habitat through agriculture, urbanization, mining, overgrazing, recreation, timber harvesting, non-native plants, impoundments, water diversions, degraded water quality, use of pesticides, and introduced predators. The reason for decline and degree of threats vary by geographic location. California red-legged frog populations are threatened by more than one factor in most locations…The California red-legged frog recovery plan provides a strategy for recovery of the species.  Recovery objectives in the recovery plan include:  1) protecting existing populations by reducing threats; 2) restoring and creating habitat that will be protected and managed in perpetuity; 3) surveying and monitoring populations and conducting research on the biology of and threats to the species; and 4) re-establishing populations of the species within its historic range."  (US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Office).

A review of the Special Status species list also reveals the interrelation among species.  The CTS will inhabit pocket gopher and ground squirrel burrows, California red-legged frog may breed in pocket gopher and ground squirrel burrows, and the pocket gophers and ground squirrels are prey in the ecosystem of, for example, Cooper's hawk, White-tailed kite, Golden eagle, and Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Certainly, the primary forage for the American badger are the pocket gopher and the ground squirrel.  It appears a complete assessment for the presence of Burrowing owl in the area has not been conducted.   A more complete avian survey of species nesting in, resident and migratory, in this upland habitat area is strongly recommended.  

Upland Habitat Conservation, American Badger

Paula Lane Action Network (PLAN) is a Sonoma County, West Petaluma-based nonprofit organization whose mission includes research and education to protect and preserve rural land, open space and wildlife habitat, and to support sustainable agriculture within that context.  PLAN was formed in 2001 and incorporated in 2004 as a public benefit, nonprofit organization.  PLAN's Board of Directors, Advisors and volunteer members include individuals with expertise in conservation, land use and environmental review, education, general contracting and construction, real estate and property management, health care and education, and information technology.  A current project of PLAN is support for the City of Petaluma's Paula Lane Open Space Preserve in West Petaluma, a Matching Grant project of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District currently moving through the funding approval process.  This 11.22 acre land contains a century-old American Badger habitat, which is a core maternal area with year-round activity and a regionally recognized area of long-term American Badger presence.  The land is centrally located in a wildlife corridor that serves badger and multiple species in a north-south and north-south-west movement area.  Just southwest of Paula Lane in the Windsor Drive area is a federally conserved habitat for California Red-Legged Frog.  The Paula Lane area is approximately 9.5 miles east of the Roblar Road area.  The complex ecosystem in the Paula Lane upland habitat area is similar to identified species and interrelations described above on the proposed Roblar Road quarry property.  A complete Paula Lane land and area avian survey over a 3-year period revealed similar avian species as preliminarily identified in the Roblar Road area.   Burrowing owl has not been identified to date in the Paula Lane area.

Paula Lane Action Network is currently developing a Mammal Reporting Form (MRF) to facilitate mapping and documentation of American Badger habitat and presence in West and South Sonoma County.  This information will be provided as local input to the Bay Area Open Space Council's Upland Habitat Database and Goals project.  

Paula Lane Action Network has collaborated with Sonoma County biologist Kim Fitts of Bioconsultant LLC  for 7 years in monitoring and documenting badger habitat and presence on Paula Lane in West Petaluma, South Sonoma County.  Biologist Fitts is considered the expert Sonoma County biologist pertaining to American Badger.  While badger habitat has been fragmented, is threatened, and badger presence is not widely spread in Sonoma County, badger burrows and badger sightings have been reported in Petaluma on Paula Lane, at Jenner Headlands on the Sonoma coast (protected), at Carrington Ranch on the Sonoma coast (protected), and in the Willow Creek and Red Hill areas (protected) in Northwest Sonoma County.  A recent site visit to Roblar Road and to a property adjacent to the proposed Roblar Road Quarry site revealed active badger presence (Figure 1), burrows from 50' to 200' of the proposed quarry site, and a pastoral open setting conducive to active burrowing and ability to survive. t is my understanding Biologist Fitts has filed documentation of badger presence in the Roblar Road area with the California Natural Diversity Database; this was not reported by the applicant's biologist.

Recent research by Diamond and Bros (July 2008, International Congress for Conservation Biology) also confirms the threat to survival of American Badger from loss of habitat and ability to range.  "Small populations of North American Badgers, Taxidea Taxus,  live in fragmented areas within the San Francisco Bay Area and Monterey Bay Counties in Northern California.  Due to increasing fragmentation of badger habitats it is important to identify potential corridors that badgers may utilize to facilitate the movement between the habitat patches…" ("Using GIS and Roadkill Data to Identify Habitat Characteristics Associated with North American Badger Movement Patterns and Evaluate Corridor Models," July 2008, presented).

The San Francisco Bay Area Upland Habitat Goals Project, a project of the Bay Area Open Space Council, is an important regional planning tool for conservation and protecting biodiversity in the 9-county Bay Area Region.  Sonoma County is included in this database and project development, and American Badger is one of the target mammal species of this project.

Review of Roblar Road Quarry Project-American Badger Site Assessment, August 2007 

The cover page for the report shows a badger burrow with a hard cover book situated next to it.

The report relates to a site assessment rather than an actual habitat survey.  It appears the biologist and his associate, based on a description in the report, blocked 7 areas and then included information on whether or not badger burrows and/or foraging were observed in these areas.  References utilized by the biologist to support findings and conclusions dated from 1937 to 1990.   Presence of the American Badger (a California Species of Concern since 1987) was described in areas of the quarry site and in the "proposed alternative haul route" (Pittman).   

The author does not include documentation from the California Natural Diversity Database of the West Petaluma Paula Lane badger presence or an additional report filed in the Roblar Road area by Biologist Fitts, as referenced above,   This data was available for inclusion.

The author does not utilize more current documentation regarding threatened, fragmented habitat and the American Badger as a key species in upland habitat areas for identification and mapping, part of the Bay Area Open Space Council's Upland Habitat Goals project.  Utilizing outdated supporting information, it appears the author's conclusions about stability and safety for the American Badger in the midst of a proposed rock quarry operation, access road and explosive blasting with noise and ground vibration, are also inaccurate.  "While the proposd alignment and quarry site appear to be situated in an area with moderate badger activity, given the large range of the species and minimal denning opportunities in the proposed alignment, the overall effect of the alternative haul route would likely be negligible relative to the reproduction, cover, and foraging needs of this species." (p. 9, report).  The author cites badger home ranges, based on the outdated information, of "400 acres to over 2,000 acres." (p. 9, report).  Perhaps in early America, in other States, and in the 1930's and 40's prior to development and fragmentation of habitat for many species, including American Badger, this was true.

However, today, fragmented habitat due to development and human encroachment is a primary  factor related to diminishing Special Status species such as American Badger, biodiversity and survival.   

The proposed mitigation measures for the identified significant impacts to the American Badger population on the proposed quarry site as well as the proposed alternative haul route area are insufficient and are drawn from inaccurate conclusions by biologist Pittman in his assessment.

Mitigation measures in the EIR included:

D-5, Chap. IV, p. 155:   … "Within 30 days prior to initiation of each mining phase, a qualified biologist shall survey for badgers within 100 feet of project activities.  If no evidence of badger presence is detected, no further mitigation is required.  If evidence of badgers is identified…"

- Use exclusion techniques to passively relocate any badgers that are present in project areas or within 50 feet of project activities.  When outside the project area but within 50 feet of activities, vacated dens shall be temporarily covered using plywood sheets or similar materials.

-  To reduce the risk of badger mortality from vehicles, the use of private (non-county operated) haul roads shall be limited to daylight hours during the March to June  badger pupping season with gated access.

- A 25 mile per hour posted speed limit shall be posted for roads on the site."

"Utilizing the above mitigation measures for the significant American Badger presence on the site and in the surrounding area, the significance of negative environmental impacts would be mitigated to Less than Significant."

Comment:

Our comments are based on research and monitoring of active American Badger habitat over a period of ten years.  Badgers in burrows during the day could include young who are blind for the first 4-6 weeks of life.  The proposal to "passively relocate" a badger raises several concerns – the stress involved in an attempted trapping of a badger for relocation, along with where a trapped badger would be released, the possibility of a female being trapped and removed from the protective role of her young, along with the question of how to relocate newborn or young badgers who are solely reliant on their maternal guardian.  Badgers burrow and choose their ground-based burrow in a natural fashion.  Attempting to trap and relocate a badger and, in particular, a female badger with her young, during daylight hours would be unnatural and extremely stressful for the badger, whether it be an individual male badger, an individual female badger, or a female badger with her young who can number from 1 to 5 additional badgers.  Such a mitigation measure could prove to be extremely harmful and a complete failure.  Attempting to relocate a badger could also result in competition for limited habitat and displacement of other members of the same species.  It is also clear from observing and visiting one of the immediately adjacent properties to the proposed quarry site that a healthy and active habitat for American Badger is intact and, in fact, pristine, a rare finding for Sonoma County in terms of an undisturbed habitat within a complex ecosystem and the ability for fairly free ranging for the badger over several acres. 

It would be in the highest and best public interest and interest of biological resources that contribute to the vital and complex ecosystem on the Roblar Road property and the adjacent conserved-eased lands to protect the conservation values that exist in concert with the active agricultural land in that area, as recognized by the Sonoma Co. Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The proposed mitigation measure of placing a piece of plywood or "other material" over what appears to be an inactive burrow within 50 feet or 100 feet of planned activities is not a mitigation measure and has no relevance with regard to protection of the species, mitigation of significant negative environmental impacts, and habitat.  In addition, inactive and abandoned badger burrows are frequently utilized by smaller mammals, such as foxes and skunks, for cover and for raising young.  Although these species are not protected per se, it is important for the awareness of the general public to know that a mass obliteration of other wildlife would likely occur on the Roblar Road property, should the quarry proposal be approved.

In addition, stating that the American Badger is nocturnal and, therefore, proposing a restriction of excessive heavy truck traffic during daylight hours to minimize additional mortality is a limited and unacceptable mitigation proposal.  A female badger will forage during daylight hours while her young remain in a burrow.  An American Badger in a burrow during daylight hours in the proximity of the proposed quarry area, the proposed alternative haul route or any road associated with access to the proposed quarry, could also be significantly and negatively impacted by the constant ground vibration and noise associated with operational activity and excessive truck traffic proposed for this project.

Noise, Blasting, Explosion Impact

Section G of Chapter IV describes Noise impacts and proposed mitigation measures.    

The section focuses on noise and vibration impacts to humans and does not address what can only be described as the potential devastating impacts on wildlife, keeping in mind the American Badger is a ground-based mammal, in burrows during daytime, and, except for a female badger with young,  foraging nocturnally, with no ability to leap away and run or attempt to fly away like other species.    

Appendix F, the November 2006 Revey report, appears to be the only reference utilized by ESA to determine potential noise and blasting and vibration impacts on wildlife.  Author Revey cites a study performed at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, and concluded, based on that study and observation of several species, no significant impact from blasting.  The author did not mention in the study that a zoo contains an artificial environment of caged and captured animals who would not be able to escape and whose behavior would not equate with wildlife species in a natural setting.  The author noted that a pair of black rhinos mated during construction on tunnels at the zoo and concluded no long term disturbance to that species.  The author indicated he observed white-tailed deer in an open-air explosive testing range in Pennsylvania.  He noted during blasting deer might "casually" lift their head and look toward the test site, but never ran away or "appeared" bothered by the loud noise.  The author concludes that, like the animals at the Washington Park Zoo, the deer had "become acclimatized to the blasting noise."  One could likely conclude, utilizing this line of reasoning, the various species did not move because they were stunned and stayed still during such explosive noise and blasting.  In the case of caged and captured animals who are already in an unnatural setting and unable to escape, subjected to explosive blasting, this does not adequately measure or indicate impact of such unnatural and harmful noise and vibratory impacts on wild and/or domestic animals. 

In the Appendix F Noise discussion, Revey lastly notes he was involved in several expansion projects in a five-year period at the local County landfill that involved blasting within 1000 feet of dairy cows.  Blast noise levels reached as high as 128 dBL.  The author notes initial concern by dairy operators who later concluded the blasting had no impact on their dairy cows.  Revey utilizes this conclusion to draw his conclusion that there was no impact on the dairy cows.  He then concludes, "Based on the referencd studies and observations of the author of the many other projects, blasting at the Roblar Road Project would have little or no impact on domestic or wild animals near the site or on neighboring properties." (p. 22).  

These observations and studies do not reflect the conditions of the upland habitat, complex ecosystem, with multiple wildlife species, including the ground-based, burrowing, American Badger and utilization of abandoned burrows by CTS and California Red-Legged Frog, and cannot be utilized to ascertain potential negative significant impacts of the sustained noise and explosive blasting that would accompany a quarry project. 

Revey cites a USBM study on page 7 of his report of blast-induced noise using A-weighted, C-weighted and Linear microphones.  The linear peak noise in that study of 120dBL was said to equate to "only 112 cBC and 85 dBA."  Revey's comparison to the Roblar Road theoretically proposed blasting noise 600 feet away, or 200 feet closer than the USBM study, proposes to be around 122.5 dBL.  The 85 dBA equivalent cited in the USBM study would clearly thus be somewhat higher.  According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), prolonged exposure to any noise 85 decibels can result in hearing loss. 

The noise equivalent of 90 decibels is a power mower and 150 a firecracker. (NIDCD, National Institutes of Health, June 2010).    

.The reader may recall a recent July 4, 2010 incident in Sonoma County related to firecrackers, or fireworks.  Keeping in mind, Revey estimates the impact of a blast 600' away from a residence at the Roblar Road quarry site (not delineating the closeness or possible habitat locations of nearby wildlife), the relevant story was broadcast on Channel 7, ABC TV, on July 5, 2010.  "Taz," a trained German Shepherd police dog in Santa Rosa, was placed by his handlers' parents in an outdoor backyard kennel on July 4th.  Explosive bottle rockets nearby resulted in clear distress on the part of the dog (viewed by surveillance video) as he tried to escape the experienced negative impact and eventually scaled the 4-feet high wall and did escape the area.  Taz was found by a veterinary technician the following day many miles away, with an injured leg.    Several reported eyewitness accounts to Paula Lane Action Network of firecracker/fireworks impacts to domestic animals, including horses, reveal a high level of trauma, attempt to escape by running, and exhaustion and extreme stress on July 5.  Such eyewitness accounts are equally valid to Revey's reporting and likely more representative of clear and relevant negative noise and explosive impacts to domestic animals. 

Adding the noise and ground vibration from blasting explosives at a quarry to the sustained heavy truck traffic noise and ground vibration and human encroachment activity would, without question, produce a negative and harmful noise and vibrational impact and destruction of natural environment for badgers and other ground-based species in the upland habitat area of Roblar Road.

Additional Comments:

We concur with concerns expressed in the February 1, 2010 letter from Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeeper. 

We are concerned about an apparent request of the applicant to alter a conservation easement placed in perpetuity on an adjacent property to the proposed quarry site, to benefit the quarry operations and the applicant.  This request (Butler, January 2008) attempts to establish a precedent related to conservation easements that would appear to be a violation of integrity of process and a violation of trust in those who manage the quarter-cent sales tax revenues on behalf of the public whose funds generate and maintain the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District.  If an outright denial is not provided to the applicant, the issue should be reviewed and fully vetted by the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, a body of appointees representing the 5 County Districts and relevant areas of Business, Agriculture, Environment and Real Estate.  To ensure a fair and representative process of review, within this body, any member who is also a member of the Sonoma County Planning Commission with involvement in the review of the quarry proposal, along with any member who has had or who has contracts with North Bay Construction and/or Ghilotti Construction, or Mr. John Barella as an individual, should recuse from participation in the discussion and any subsequent recommendation to the Board of Directors of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. 

An issue within the past two years regarding a property owner's request to allow mitigation on a conserved-eased land, also in the 2nd District, received extensive review and input from the Citizens Advisory Committee to the staff, with recommendations to be submitted to the Board of Directors.  As a seated member of the Citizens Advisory Committee at that time, it appeared to me that this input was helpful in both representing Sonoma County citizens' trust in appropriate utilization of sales tax revenues and in assisting the staff in their process of policy considerations and recommendations to the Board of Directors.   An agendized discussion of the issue at hand, a request to alter a conservation easement in order to accommodate an operational question of a proposed quarry, would allow for public input in the comment process, as well.

Finally, how this proposal continued beyond an initial proposal stage is both concerning and dumbfounding.  The only change in conditions since a similar quarry application was last denied has been the continuing evolution of a complex and diverse upland habitat ecosystem on the property and identification and beginning documentation of this.  Based solely on the significant negative impacts to Biological Resources, with the opportunity to maintain open space protection and preserve the pristine upland habitat, this project application could (and should) be denied.  Combined with multiple other significant individual and cumulative impacts, the impending environmental destruction with proposed, but insufficient, mitigation measures, and the risks to  public safety and health, the project application should be denied.     

Sincerely yours,

Susan Kirks

Susan Kirks for
Paula Lane Action Network

 

Figure 1: Photograph, active badger burrows within 200' of Roblar Road Quarry proposed site
Figures 2 & 3:  (Hard copy)  Two photographs, Badgers, West Petaluma
Figure 4:  (Hard copy) Roblar Road in proximity to other West Petaluma, South Sonoma County,  upland habitat areas

 

PAULA LANEACTION NETWORK (P.L.A.N.)

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Petaluma, CA  94953

Phone:  707-773-3215      Email:  info@paulalaneactionnetwork.org

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