Gravel mine loses first round

Sometimes a slip of the tongue can make the difference between success and failure.

That may have been the case Tuesday (April 24), when the Butte County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted not to allow the M&T Chico Ranch to remove 106 acres of land from the state’s Land Conservation Act so Baldwin Contracting Co., which leases the land, could begin building a large open-pit sand and gravel mine.

The decision is a setback for Baldwin but by no means the end of its 11-year effort to build the mine off River Road near the Sacramento River.

The act, otherwise known as the Williamson Act after its author, enables farmers to enter into contracts guaranteeing the land will remain in agricultural use in return for reduced property-tax rates. Certain conditions must be met to cancel one of these contracts.

The slip of the tongue came as an attorney for Baldwin, Jeffrey Dorso, tried to deal with one of the stipulations the Chico road construction firm was having trouble meeting: that the cancellation wouldn’t affect neighboring farms.

Recent legislation prohibits doing dormant spraying within 100 feet of any “sensitive aquatic site.” The mine project would include a diversion channel along the west side of the property, just 20 feet from neighboring almond farms.

Earlier, Steve Prentice, who owns an almond orchard bordering the proposed site, said that proximity would mean he’d have to change his practices on an 80-foot-wide, mile-long section of his orchard—nearly 10 acres—with significant economic impacts.

In response, Dorso suggested that Prentice could continue farming either by using other, allowed sprays or even “changing his crops.”

Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi jumped on this remark. Noting that an almond farm represents a huge investment in money, labor and time, he asked Dorso, “Why does a neighboring farmer have to change crops because of your plant?”

Dorso tried to recover, saying changing crops was just one possible alternative, but the damage was done.

Later, when it came time for the supervisors to discuss their positions on the cancellation, they clearly remembered Dorso’s comment and found it objectionable.

But that wasn’t the only reason they turned down the cancellation request. Another was Baldwin’s failure to convince them that it had met another important stipulation: that there be no available alternative source of gravel.

Baldwin was in a bind here. For one thing, the county’s Williamson Act advisory committee earlier had told the board that Baldwin failed to convince its members that no other source was available.

Also, the company’s own general manager, Rene J. Vercruyssen, had acknowledged at an earlier Planning Commission meeting that plenty of gravel was available from its current primary source, in Glenn County. The advantage of mining in Butte County, he’d said, was that it was closer, so the gravel would be cheaper and roads thus less expensive to build. Also, the county would get some $56,000 annually in extraction fees.

Subsequently, however, Baldwin had commissioned a Yuba City real estate agent (and Sutter County supervisor), Dan Logue, to do a study of available gravel sites in Butte County.

In recent days, Logue sent the supervisors a letter saying, in essence, that no properties containing significant amounts of gravel were on the market. He did not appear at Tuesday’s hearing to answer questions about his findings.

It was clear the supervisors put little faith in Logue’s last-minute letter. As Chairwoman Jane Dolan put it, “My experience is that some exploration has to be done to locate potential gravel sites. They’re not just listed on the MLS [multiple listing service].”

John Nock, a neighbor of the proposed site, testified that gravel availability studies in Glenn and Tehama counties and the Yuba City/Marysville area indicated that billions of tons of aggregate were available, enough to meet a 50-year demand many times over.

The end result was that all five supervisors were unconvinced that M&T and Baldwin had met the stipulations required for cancellation of their contract and voted against it.

But, as mentioned, the story is far from over. Baldwin intends to move forward in its effort to get a use permit for the mine. In February, the county Planning Commission certified the project’s EIR on a 3-2 vote as well as a use permit for the mine. Both decisions were appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which set May 22 for hearings on the appeals.

Jeff Carter, another attorney for Baldwin, later told the CN&R that if Baldwin gets its use permit, at the least it could begin mining when its current contract expires in December 2014.