The M&T gravel mine proposal is back— and so are its opponents
Ron Jones’ family farm is located about six miles west of Chico, on River Road about a mile and a half from the Sacramento River. It’s a small farm, 170 acres, planted in almonds, and it’s been in the family since 1920, when his grandfather and great-grandfather purchased the land.
The two houses on the farm are nestled on the west side of Little Chico Creek, which here flows in a southerly direction under a narrow overhang of trees before passing through the 18,000-acre Llano Seco Ranch and emptying into the Sacramento River.
The land on the other, eastern side of the creek, less than 50 yards from Jones’ houses, belongs to the M&T Ranch, which at 8,000 acres is the largest contiguous farm in Butte County. The land is zoned for orchard and field crops, and historically it’s been used for farming, though it now lies fallow. Underneath about 15 feet of topsoil, however, is a layer of gravel. Since 1996, Baldwin Contracting Co., Butte County’s biggest road builder, has been trying to get permission from the county to operate an open-pit gravel mine on a site it would lease from M&T that parallels the creek right across from Jones’ farm.
It’s been a fitful effort, largely because the plan has run into resistance over the years and Baldwin has pulled back to restructure it, in the process reducing the mine’s overall size from 315 to 235 acres. Even so, it would generate 16,500 truckloads of gravel per year (or 33,000 truck trips, an average of 90 per day) for 20 to 30 years.
Initial plans to include batch plants for making ready-mix and asphaltic concrete were dropped when the county determined they were not allowed under the zoning, but the current proposal does include a processing plant in which the mined material would be washed and screened to separate out the gravel.
The land eventually would be reclaimed “to high-quality, open-water, wetland wildlife habitat and agriculture,” according to the project’s environmental-impact report. Specifically, the mined area, some 193 acres, would become a small lake surrounded by planted native vegetation and farmland.
Ron Jones lives in Chico now, but he grew up on the family farm, so this is land he knows intimately. He is convinced it should be farmed, not mined.
It’s good land, he says, good enough for him to have recently replanted a section bordering the mine site in almonds. “Does that look like poor soil?” he asks rhetorically, scuffing at a black, loamy-looking clod of dirt. All of this land, he says, is alluvial soil built up over thousands of years as the Sacramento River and the streams that feed it flooded, leaving behind nutrient-rich deposits.
There are many concerns besides the loss of good farmland, he says. He worries about flooding, for example, and how the project might increase the threat. In 1997, Jones says, water rose nine inches up the side of his main farmhouse. That kind of flooding, he’s convinced, could wreak havoc on the mine site, carrying contaminants downstream in massive quantities.
Before the mine proposal surfaced, Jones knew little or nothing about development processes and laws. Now he’s an expert who’s spent hours analyzing documents and regulations in an effort to forestall what he sees as an environmental disaster in the making—in the process becoming one of the biggest thorns in Baldwin’s side.
Jones has some potent allies. One is the Parrott Investment Co., which owns Llano Seco. Parrott’s wealthy principal owner, Richard Theriot, has dedicated some 10,000 acres of his ranch to wildlife habitat and put the rest in conservation easements. He’s understandably unhappy about the prospect of having an open-pit mine next door.
In a strongly worded Dec. 11 letter to the county Planning Commission, Parrott’s attorney, Howard Ellman, of San Francisco, notes that the draft EIR is deficient in several regards. It fails to describe the overall context of the project adequately, to recognize the threat of flooding and to acknowledge the threat of groundwater contamination, he writes.
Don’t be fooled by Baldwin’s plan to turn the mine into a pond and wildlife refuge, Ellman insists. “The proposal before you is a gravel mine—30 years of environmental devastation to achieve a modest lake that might have wildlife values.”
Though Ellman nowhere in the letter threatens to sue, Deputy County Counsel Felix Wannenmacher warned at a Dec. 14 meeting of the Planning Commission that Ellman’s comments clearly constituted groundwork for a lawsuit and needed to be taken seriously.
In addition, a number of people in Chico and Durham concerned about the truck traffic that would be generated by the mine also are actively opposing it. Most of the gravel would be trucked either to Baldwin’s plant on The Skyway just above Honey Run Road or to building sites in east Chico.
The plan calls for the trucks to take several different routes from the site (see illustration), with the most heavily traveled being the shortest and easiest: Chico River Road and West Fifth Street to Highway 32 (Walnut Street), and from there to the freeway or down Park Avenue. Baldwin would contribute to a fund to help pay for repairing damage to the roads.
In what it calls “significant and unavoidable” impacts, the EIR notes that the project would “add ten or more trips per day” to the Walnut/West Fifth Street intersection, which already is a troublesome site, and exacerbate conditions on Park Avenue, East Park Avenue and Bruce Road as well as the intersection of the Durham-Dayton Highway and the Midway, in downtown Durham.
These traffic impacts, more than anything else, concern Planning Commissioner Nina Lambert. At the Dec. 14 meeting, she questioned whether they were truly unavoidable. Why, she wondered, couldn’t all the trucks headed for Chico travel north on River Road to Highway 32 and then into town? That at least would eliminate some of the congestion.
In response, county Assistant Public Works Director Shawn O’Brien said the cost of bringing River Road up to standards capable of handling such heavy loads would be $12 million.
The city of Chico ordinarily doesn’t take a position on a development proposal outside its sphere of interest, said Mayor Andy Holcombe, but the traffic impacts are definitely a concern. At the request of Councilman Steve Bertagna, the issue has been agendized for discussion at the council’s Jan. 2 meeting.
In a Dec. 14 letter to Jones, Bertagna notes that a recent Highway 32 corridor study “concluded that Hwy 32 needs major improvements and should ultimately be more pedestrian friendly. This truck traffic seems ill advised for this part of our community.”
It’s easy to demonize a gravel mine and, in so doing, forget that sand and gravel are something a growing community needs. Baldwin’s argument, in the project’s EIR, is that Butte County will need 127 million tons of aggregate over the next 50 years, but only 54 million tons are now available in the county.
As Jones notes in a Nov. 22 letter to the Planning Commission, however, the EIR fails to consider the gravel now coming from Glenn and Tehama counties. He did some research, crunched the numbers and makes a case that, if the imported gravel is included in the tally, Butte County has more than enough to meet its needs. Baldwin now gets most of its gravel from Glenn County, in fact.
René Vercruyssen, the retired former president of Baldwin Contracting who long has spearheaded the proposed project, did not respond to questions faxed to him. According to a Dec. 2 report in the Chico Enterprise-Record, however, he told the Planning Commission at its Nov. 30 meeting that the benefits of the project outweigh its detriments. It will save travel time for Baldwin’s trucks and reduce the cost of the aggregate, which in turn will allow Baldwin to lower its bids on road construction projects, saving taxpayers money.
“If the mine can’t be located on ag land, where can it be located?” he asked.
The Planning Commission, which has held two meetings to talk about it and has continued it again to the Jan. 25 meeting, must decide whether to certify the EIR and approve a use permit. If it does so, the project will go to the Board of Supervisors, which will hold additional public hearings before voting on it. The supervisors must also approve the project’s reclamation and hazardous-materials plans and issue a mining permit.
They must also decide whether to allow M&T to remove the land from the Williamson Act, under which it has enjoyed a lowered property-tax rate in return for a commitment to keep the land in agriculture. If M&T is allowed to remove the land, it will have to pay a hefty penalty. If not, all of the other processes and permits are moot, at least for now.
Numerous state and federal agencies—from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Regional Water Quality Control Board—also must approve and sign off or issue permits on the project.
Jones intends to follow the project every step of the way. To him, it’s personal.