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[whitespace] Ted Benhari, Fred Bryck, Gary Young and Miriam Beames George Sakkestad

Quarry Quandary: Ted Benhari, Fred Bryck, Gary Young and Miriam Beames oppose RMC Lonestar's planned expansion into this piece of land behind the existing limestone quarry in Bonny Doon. Benhari is the president of the Rural Bonny Doon Association.

In the Santa Cruz mountain community of Bonny Doon, residents watch nervously as RMC Lonestar's limestone quarry creeps closer to their homes.

By Rachel Anne Goodman

IF YOU HAVE DRIVEN down Highway 85 recently or flown into the newly expanded San Francisco Airport, you likely traveled on concrete produced by Davenport's RMC Lonestar cement plant. The company's client list reads like a who's who of Northern California development: the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Peninsula BART extension--even the Golden Gate Bridge has Santa Cruz cement in it. Helping to feed California's insatiable appetite for limestone, the primary ingredient in cement, is RMC Lonestar's quarry in Bonny Doon, north of Santa Cruz.

When it runs out of rock in 20 years, the company must find another source or close its Davenport plant. Unfortunately, the most likely place to expand is up the mountain toward homes in Bonny Doon, and residents fear their quiet rural existence will be shattered by ammonium nitrate blasts and rock dust.

RMC Lonestar, owned by building-materials giant RMC of London, applied a year ago to Santa Cruz County for permission to expand its 272-acre limestone quarry operation by 25 acres to the east, which would bring it to the outer reaches of its permit area.

Now, to the dismay of Bonny Doon residents, the company has started to prospect for limestone on three residential parcels totaling 51 acres it recently acquired between the quarry's northern limit and Smith Grade, drilling dozens of test holes in the process.

Ralph Lovato, who owned one of the three parcels, lived next to the quarry for 30 years. During that time, blasting and excavation crept ever closer to his property, winding up a mere 200 feet from his land. "My wife couldn't hang out the clothes or she'd have to wash them again, there was so much dust," Lovato says. "The blasts felt like 4.2 earthquakes. Once--it was during the height of the Cold War--I thought the Russians had taken out San Francisco. It terrified me."

Lovato says his complaints brought few results. "The county has bent over backward to get their tax money, and to heck with the little peons that are getting shafted. Big business will come into a community like this and just run roughshod over everyone." After five years of expensive legal battles, Lovato sold his five-acre property to RMC Lonestar for half a million dollars and moved to Mariposa. He questions the timing of the buyout, coming as it did during a 1996 environmental review that was conducted in part for the quarry's certificate of compliance with its county mining permit, which is performed every five years.

Satish Sheth, RMC's Davenport plant manager, denies the company tried to silence anyone. "I don't see how you can keep people from saying whatever they want," Sheth says. Despite the fact that RMC Lonestar has spent $3 million to acquire the three parcels, Sheth also denies the company will automatically expand its quarry operation there.

"The first thing that comes to people's mind is 'That means you're going to mine there.' No," Sheth says. "First we have to know what's there. It's going to be a full-blown permit process. This is not going to be snuck by anybody."

But the company has received some favorable treatment in the past. The county planning commission granted RMC Lonestar an "exclusion"--the right to drill 29 test holes on the newly acquired residential properties without having to go through the planning department's regular permit process. Significantly, the exclusion also takes away the county's ability to oversee the drilling.

The exclusion rankles Gary and Peggy Young. The Youngs owns a storybook cottage nestled beneath mammoth redwood trees less than a mile from the quarry. They're expecting their second child any day and rushing to finish a remodel. The couple filed a complaint July 16 with the coastal commission over the test wells, criticizing the lack of public review and drawing attention to the potential risks to the local aquifers. Local residents fear that punching through 500 feet of limestone may affect their wells, which are generally only 150 feet deep. Many fear the water could drain to a lower level if holes are punched in the aquifer floor.

In an Aug. 19 letter to local residents, Sheth tries to allay this fear.

"There is no such risk," Sheth writes, comparing any hole in the aquifer to "a pin-sized hole in a big swimming pool" which the company would close within two days.

Drilling was suspended while the commission studied the Youngs' complaint. But the commission ruled recently that because the test holes were defined as "grading," not mining, the exclusion was legal, and drilling could resume.

Should the drilling reveal major new limestone deposits, expanding the quarry north onto the residential parcels on Smith Grade would not be easy because it would involve amending the county's general plan. Denise Holbert, planning commissioner for the third supervisorial district (represented by Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt), says it is rare that residential- zoned property is rezoned for industrial use. "The general plan says 'no new industrial uses in the coastal zone,'" says Holbert. "[RMC Lonestar's] attorneys will argue that it's not a new use. I believe it's a substantial expansion, and allowing it would constitute a rather significant amendment."

It's the Water

RMC LONESTAR is the biggest property owner in Santa Cruz County, with 9,000 acres in upper Bonny Doon (mostly in timber) and another 1,000 acres that contain the limestone quarry, a shale quarry, the Davenport cement plant and a four-mile-long conveyor belt connecting the three.

The walls of the limestone quarry rise 400 feet in 40-foot contours resembling giant marbled gray stairs. From the rim, trucks and bulldozers look like tiny Tonka toys against the massive moonscape. To get at the limestone, the land is cleared of trees, then all dirt and unwanted rock are bulldozed away. The limestone is blasted from the walls with five tons of explosives at a time, then the loose rock is crushed and conveyed to Davenport, where it is mixed with gypsum and other minerals to make cement.

At the quarry entrance a large sign warns: "Caution, Red Legged Frogs Crossing, drive slowly." It's not a joke, but a symbol of the regulatory web that hangs over this highly successful mining operation. Its strands include federal and state mining laws, the Endangered Species Act, the California Department of Fish and Game and Santa Cruz County's own jurisdiction, which oversees the quarry's compliance with its use permit. Nevertheless, the integrated mining/cement plant company is profitable, thanks to a brisk business in federal highway projects and earthquake retrofits. The company's total U.S. sales last year topped $200 million, while it forked over $800,000 a year in property taxes for the cement/quarry operation alone.

At the current rate of 1.2 million tons mined annually, the limestone quarry operation will run out of rock in about 14 years. Expanding onto the 25 acres east of the quarry will add six years to its life, but will lop off a hill which now serves as a buffer between Bonny Doon and the quarry and in the process create another 1.5 million tons of waste.

Sheth says expansion is necessary because the cost of hauling limestone to the plant from another source "wouldn't be economically viable." Despite opposition, blocking the east expansion will be difficult because the acreage is within the quarry's permit area. However, it has been stalled by concerns from the city of Santa Cruz over an issue at least as serious as noise and scenic beauty: the city's water supply.

The mountain of limestone under Bonny Doon cradles abundant water close to the surface. Santa Cruz currently gets 8 percent of its water, about a million gallons a day, from Liddell Spring, which sits just south of the quarry on the Coast Dairy property. But the quality of the water has started to decline in recent years, says city water manager Terry Tompkins.

"From the data we've gathered since 1963, we've noticed an increase in turbidity," says Tompkins, who adds that every drop of water is crucial to the city. Despite El Niño's torrential rains, Santa Cruz is already looking at water shortfalls this year. Annual demand for water in the city, Tompkins says, will exceed supply by up to 1.1 billion gallons by 2005. Santa Cruz gets most of its water from the San Lorenzo River, but recent news reports suggest that silt and turbidity due to erosion from logging operations and development have degraded that supply as well.

The city of Santa Cruz, the county and RMC Lonestar are conducting a joint hydrology study to see if the quarry is to blame for the muddy water. The study, which should be completed by the end of the year, will send a tracing dye down a hole in the quarry floor and see if it comes out in Liddell Spring. But complicated underground rock structures make it hard to prove a direct connection. Bruce Laclergue, the county hydrologist, says water is hard to map because it can follow such convoluted paths underground. The 29 controversial exploratory wells north of the quarry are also supposed to yield data about the aquifer, although their main purpose is to look for mineral deposits.

Sheth says that RMC Lonestar has already spent $50,000 in monitoring equipment for Liddell Spring, with an additional $30,000 planned. If a direct connection between the quarry and Liddell Spring is not established, the company will not be required to mitigate the turbidity problem. Meanwhile, if faced with a choice between the quarry expansion and the city's water quality, Holbert says, "The city's water is a lot more important."

Quarry
George Sakkestad

Drilling for Dollars: RMC Lonestar's quarry in Bonny Doon produces 1.2 million tons of limestone annually for use in the company's Davenport cement plant. Neighbors fear that quarry expansion will destroy the area's rural tranquillity.

Opposition

BONNY DOON'S 3,400 residents are tucked away up dirt roads that wind through redwoods and pristine meadows with sweeping views of the Pacific. There are no stores, and the only public commercial space is the Bonny Doon Winery tasting room. For 40 years, the Rural Bonny Doon Association has fought to protect the area's rural character, from quashing a proposed nuclear plant in Davenport to halting plans for a golf course and resort.

Although the RBDA is just 10 years older than the quarry itself, the quarry issue has only recently grabbed its attention. Ted Benhari, chairman of the RBDA, says the quarry expansion proposal woke everyone up.

"Obviously, this is one of the most important issues facing Bonny Doon over the next 25 years. For a long time, the quarry has mainly coexisted with Bonny Doon, except for the immediate neighbors complaining about the noise and dust," Benhari says. "But if it expands, it will be moving closer to populated areas. The hills and trees that surround the quarry keep the noise out, and if they're removed, a lot more people will be complaining. Most people here don't realize how close that quarry is already."

At a recent RBDA meeting, members adopted a position calling on the county for "increased vigilance and serious punishment for infractions" of the use permit.

"We were dismayed and disappointed that the county is allowing RMC Lonestar to go ahead with this drilling without the public scrutiny that would come from the permit process," Benhari continues. "The law grants exclusions for removal of up to 100 cubic yards of material, which they come very close to in the drilling itself, but what about the grading that is likely required to move the drill rigs into position and to prepare level pads? This is hill country; you can't just drive a drill rig up the slope and start drilling."

Meanwhile, if the drilling and the blasting and the dust don't get you, the humming will.

Bill Cunningham and his wife, Robin, bought 200 acres of prime coastal land and have been selling it off in smaller parcels for $1 to $2 million each. Some of the properties overlook the cement plant and shale quarry (located halfway between the limestone quarry and the plant). Recently, a strange humming drone has been heard all over lower Bonny Doon, prompting a flurry of complaints to the company and the county.

"We want to build a house on our land," Robin says. "But if it's going to sound like eight million leaf-blowers, we'll reconsider."

Cunningham's attitude toward the quarry is alternately conciliatory and critical, reflecting the ambivalence of many locals. "They've actually been really good neighbors to us; they've contacted us when they were blasting. We've tried to be civilized, not NIMBY types. Maybe I'm idealistic, but I feel that if we communicate with them, we can come to some understanding. I don't want to be only negative and throw gasoline on the fire. We have to live here and somehow coexist with the quarry."

Good-Neighbor Policy?

RMC LONESTAR SAYS it is doing its utmost to return the favor. Recently, the company pledged $45,000 to Pacific School in Davenport, the public elementary serving the town of 200, as part of the "Adopt a School" program. They also helped build the Davenport Fire Station, and they regularly sponsor local events. Sheth says keeping people happy is part of RMC's philosophy.

"The company is very community-oriented," Sheth says. "I've spent a lot of time in Davenport and Bonny Doon talking to people about their concerns. We want to be a good neighbor, and we want to be in business for a long time."

"People are neighbors. There's no such thing as having a corporation as a neighbor," Gary Young responds. "They have to watch out for their bottom line." Young has had his own problems with the quarry. Once his stone deck cracked in half, which he blames on the blasting. "They denied there were any blasts that day," Young says. "Who else is blowing things up on this mountain? As far as I'm concerned, these folks are getting away with murder.

"I have to jump through hoops just to fix my house, and they don't have to do anything to be able to take down the whole mountain," Young says. "There's been so little public scrutiny of this company. They donate a couple of computers to the local schools, and so it's all right."

While critics say it's nothing but corporate PR, others are grateful for RMC's philanthropy. When Bonny Doon's new elementary school principal, Joyce Salisbury, was faced with laying off teachers aides because of a budget shortfall, Sheth called to ask how much she needed to rehire them. He sent a check to the Bonny Doon School Foundation for $2,500.

Pitfalls

DURING THE 1996 environmental review, residents had an opportunity to register their complaints. John Sola, owner of another of the residential parcels recently purchased by RMC Lonestar, responded in writing to the EIR, objecting to the noise level on his property from blasting. Tests were done which showed it to be within the legal limit of 60 decibels, but the report's authors noted the noise was likely to increase as the quarry rim got closer.

"I want to be like all the other Bonny Doon residents and be able to enjoy all of my property without having to put up with undue nuisance," Sola wrote. It was not to be. Sola, who was unavailable for comment for this story, held out for another two years, then accepted RMC's offer to buy him out. He moved early last month.

Lovato says he, too, registered several complaints about RMC Lonestar during the EIR review process, claiming the company wasn't operating within the terms of its use permit.

"They were supposed to blast on certain days, certain tonnage, but they were tripling it," Lovato says. "They started drilling right next to my property, outside the boundary of their permit."

Not everyone got the word about the EIR comment period. "When we were holding hearings for the environmental impact report for the quarry's certificate of compliance, we told people about it, but no one from Bonny Doon came," says county planner Suzanne Smith. "It's a mystery to me."

Part of the problem, she says, is that the notification mailing, by law, only went out to people living with a half-mile of the quarry. She tries to keep Bonny Doon residents informed about the quarry. She supplies them with maps, responds to complaints and tries to make sure the quarry complies with its permit. Sometimes, she says, things fall through the cracks.

The owner of the third residential parcel recently purchased by RMC Lonestar, who asked that his named not be used for this article, also registered complaints. He said rocks were sometimes thrown 300 feet onto his property from the blasts, despite a 1,000-foot buffer zone. He said he ultimately sold out to the company because he thought they were trespassing on his property.

Unfortunately, Smith says, there is a gray area in the buffer zone requirement spelled out in the use permit. "Vested rights"--terms grandfathered into the current use permit based on previous permits--allow the company to drill to within 25 feet of the properties to the north of the quarry, while a 1,000-foot buffer applies only to the east side of the quarry.

Sheth maintains the company has tried to remain above board in all its dealings with local residents. "We are not the kind of business that's just doing things secretly," Sheth says. "We are at the county's door every day. There's nothing going on that's not public."

Still, at least one RMC Lonestar critic is a former employee. Dave Toshikian worked as the personnel manager for RMC Lonestar for 30 years. His dream house sits just across Smith Grade from the company's recently acquired residential parcels. "I heard they're drilling directly behind me. How do I feel about it? My nose is bent to one side. I guess they think because I'm retired that I don't have an opinion."

Toshikian worries that his property will be devalued if the quarry comes up to his doorstep. "There are disclosure laws, and I'd have to tell [prospective buyers] if there was noise or dust from the quarry." Toshikian felt no compunction about signing a petition protesting the drilling. "I signed it because I'm a property owner, and now I have to protect my investment."

A Delicate Balance

DESPITE ALL THE controversy, Sheth remains practical. "We have a plant sitting here, and it relies on limestone," he says. "We have to make a plan, and mitigate whatever the county puts on us, to not affect and disturb people." Of the 10 limestone quarry locations in the state, "Santa Cruz is the most stringent as far as environmental issues and permitting issues," Sheth says. "It takes longer, it costs more, but we accept it. It's just part of the cost of doing business."

But some critics say Santa Cruz County is getting too lenient with large corporations that locate here, pointing to the recent ruling by the county and the coastal commission in favor of Santa Cruz Biotechnology's antibody-production facility, which now uses over 1,500 goats. Even though the company produces no farm products in the traditional sense, it was deemed an "agricultural" use rather than a commercial biotechnology business and allowed to build extensively on the site.

Former deputy county counsel Jonathan Wittwer is a lead critic of what he sees as a countywide trend to go easy on corporations. "I'm concerned that the county is moving in a new direction and establishing a precedent by relieving the quarry from going through the permit process like everyone else has to," Wittwer says. "A permit process would provide an opportunity to assure the community that allowing the test wells won't affect area water wells and won't create an expectation of approval for future rezoning and general plan amendments to allow mining."

Other RBDA members echo the sentiment that the county, struggling to fund its libraries and schools, is no match for multinationals with the funds for protracted legal battles.

Supervisor Wormhoudt says the quarry and Bonny Doon have always had a rocky time getting along. "Expansion would further tip the balance. I think it's critical that the community of Bonny Doon is protected from further impacts from quarry use," Wormhoudt says. As RMC Lonestar's test drilling goes forward, Bonny Doon residents and Santa Cruz water officials will be watching closely to see what lies beneath the rolling hills and redwood groves and what it means for their future.

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From the August 27 - September 2, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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