Blue Mountain Minerals Update

Recently Blue Mountain Minerals obtained final approval for a project on their property in Columbia. Most in the community likely did not follow the process closely – we are busy people with other things to focus on. As a result, it’s understandable that the casual observer, reading mostly the headlines, would be left with the impression that the process was necessary and beneficial to the environment. However, those following closely and familiar with the project have a different prospective.  The reason the project was originally granted approval was simple and easy to understand, it was a well thought out, sound and safe project. After a complete and comprehensive review and evaluation, some might say exhaustive, the project was given a green light. Keep in mind, the environment was fully considered in the original application - we are not talking about looking the other way and doing harm to our environment so a business could expand. That’s where the story should have ended however, unfortunately, that’s not the case. A local organization sued the county claiming that the law had been broken and an environmental impact report or EIR was required. They were able to do this by taking advantage of well-meaning legislation designed to protect the environment. However, as is often the case, the potential exists to manipulate the intent of the law and use it to delay or, in some cases, prevent projects. If you take the time to research the Blue Mountain Minerals project and the process, you will be left shaking your head and asking: “How could this happen?” No tangible benefit was gained as a result of the lawsuit and subsequent additional work. The cost of the EIR was nearly $400,000 and delayed the project by 18 months. We have to do better than this. Our fragile local economy cannot consistently absorb excessive added costs and lengthy delays.  Our existing employers are less likely to pursue expansion projects if they are facing unnecessary costs and the threat of litigation. We need a strong economy. We need to create an environment which allows our existing employers to be successful and encourages new businesses. We need to protect existing jobs. We need to pursue opportunities to create new jobs. And, yes, we need to be responsible and perform a comprehensive evaluation of projects to ensure they are reasonable and minimize long term impact to our environment.
For more information on Blue Mountain Minerals, including the products they produce and industries served, please refer to this recent feature article: Columbia Limestone Quarry Serves Valley Farms    

Darrell Slocum – Tuolumne County Business Council

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Columbia Developer Responds To Farkas

Regarding the Letter to the Editor by Barbara Farkas as President of Citizen for Responsible Growth
I, Gary Simning, am writing to inform the public about the facts missing from Barbara Farkas's letter on Friday, March 14 in theUnion Democrat. The letter relates to the Columbia Apartment project my company attempted to develop to bring greatly needed rental housing opportunities to Tuolumne County. Ms. Farkas's comments profoundly misrepresent the truth, intent and professionalism of the parties involved. With the rational for the lawsuit against the Columbia Apartments, Ms. Farkas and the Citizen for Responsible Growth (CFRG) would have you believe that all the agencies responsible for reviewing the project environmental impacts, (US Army Corps of Engineers, California State Water Quality Board, California Department of Transportation, the Tuolumne County Planning Department, Tuolumne County Department of Public Works, other qualified and licensed professionals, and our elected Board of Supervisors) all ignored state law and community ordinances when approving the project.

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and the Sonora City Council are elected by the citizens of this county to protect and enhance the quality of life within our community. Each of these elected officials has presented their vision for enhancing our community to the voters. If their decisions and actions prove to be contrary to the wishes of the citizens of this county they are held accountable at the ballot box. Who are Ms. Farkas and CFRG accountable to?

California law and the County General Plan require a lengthy and detailed process for development within our community. Tens of thousands and often hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent hiring qualified professionals (biologists, engineers, land planners, architects, traffic engineers, hydrologists, etc.) to identify and mitigate impacts from any given project. The sole purpose of the county and city staff of trained professionals is to balance all input and insure that all the laws and ordinances are fully met. This is a process that generally takes several years and includes reviews, comments and conditions of approval from both state and county officials. Citizen input is sought and encouraged by the county staff through the review process and the public hearings. The lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits generated by Citizen for Responsible Growth and Central Sierra Environmental Resources Center stifle and discourage any significant development within the county. Mrs. Farkas's "let them eat cake" attitude represented in her letter shows a shocking lack of knowledge of the development process and a caviler lack of concern for the reality of the high level of personal involvement and expense required of any project. She says that she wants to have community input, but what she really means is that their small opposition group's opinion is the only one that matters.

Would you like to see more living wage jobs for yourself and your children, roads without pot holes, schools with a stable enrollment, more law enforcement and fire protection personnel, better housing options, a wider variety of retail shopping options and a prosperous community?

Barbara Farkas, and the other small opposition groups, criticize most of the needed projects that are proposed and have no such vision for our future. They offer no solutions for the declining population, declining enrollment in our schools, bad roads, lack of good paying jobs, all the while professing to know the "key to a successful business venture".

It takes no courage to criticize and malign others while risking nothing! I would encourage Barbara Farkas and the other members of the opposition groups to step forward and risk their own money, time, and effort by bringing forward a project or business within our community and show everyone how it should be done. It's very easy to criticize, malign the hard work efforts of others when you have risked nothing yourself.

Where is the Citizens for Responsible Growth's commitment? Are they investing their money in the community?

Why do they continually negate the input of others and their elected officials within this county (who also have a vested interest in the beauty and prosperity of this county)? Why do they keep their membership hidden? The Business Council's membership is open for all to see. The Tuolumne County Business Council's membership includes large and small businesses, nonprofit organizations and citizens at large, organized to look for ways to improve our community and our quality of life. They ask for and encourage community involvement to find balanced solutions which address the environment and provide the jobs and tax revenues we need to protect and enhance our community. It is time for the Citizens For Responsible Growth, and the other small opposition groups, to be held accountable for the negative consequences of their methods, methods that do not serve the best interest of our county or our quality of life.

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Business Council Reflects on Lawsuits

Lost tax revenue, jobs and housing: We all pay the cost of unwarranted litigation.

Small obstructionist groups like the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC) and Citizens for Responsible Growth (CFRG) are using unwarranted litigation to frustrate, delay, and add significant costs to housing, retail, and job-creation projects that are needed in our County. Their real objective is to stop any growth. If your first reaction to that statement is "Why should I care?" read on, because the actions of these groups take money out of your pocket, and every Tuolumne County resident's pocket, every day, every year.

There have been numerous lawsuits threatened and filed in Tuolumne County. Here are just a few recent examples of litigation to illustrate the impacts.

Remember the lawsuit over the Lowe's Home Improvement project? This project was approved with adequate development requirements by the City of Sonora, and then was delayed for five years by a lawsuit filed by the small group behind CFRG. In the end, the expensive and time-consuming lawsuit did not result in any tangible difference from what was initially approved. The minor changes could have been negotiated at the time of the original approval. According to the Sonora City Finance Department, each year of delay cost the city between $350,000 and $410,000 in sales tax revenues that could have been used to fund road repairs, police and fire services, parks/recreation programs, and economic programs like loans to retain and attract small businesses. That is a total cost of $1,750,000 to $2,050,000 in lost revenue, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses that were incurred by the City of Sonora tax payers and one of our local businesses, which without those expenses would have put more money into the local economy. In addition, the tens of thousands of dollars that Lowes spends locally each year, and the 100 to 125 local jobs were delayed. The end result is higher prices and less money for goods and services, and absolutely no meaningful benefit to the community because of this senseless litigation.

The recently withdrawn approval for the Columbia Apartments in 2013 is another sad result of the abuse of litigation. Our County has a well-documented need for more apartments. This was a $7,000,000 construction project, much of which would have been spent locally, spurring other nearby economic activity. This well-located project, between Sonora and Columbia, would have created greatly needed high-quality apartments and much needed construction jobs. After a year and a half of study, and an in-depth review by the County, the apartment project was conditioned to provide needed road and infrastructure improvements. The project fully complied with County and State regulations and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The project was unanimously approved by our elected Board of Supervisors. Regardless, CFRG sued for the County to add additional permitting time and cost for a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as a means to delay and stop the project. Fighting the unnecessary litigation would have cost the developer hundreds of thousands of dollars and substantial delays. As a result, the developer withdrew the project because the high cost of litigation to defend the unnecessary lawsuit made the project infeasible to build.
Most recently, Blue Mountain Minerals announced they also are asking the Board of Supervisors to withdraw approval of the expanded Agricultural Fill area, within their existing property, because of another unnecessary lawsuit filed by CSERC asking for a costly EIR. CSERC has said it wants the County and Blue Mountain Minerals to follow the law concerning the Agricultural fill area project. This is troubling because CSERC does not have any mining experience nor mining expertise on which to base its opinion. CSERC's interpretation of "the law" is not shared by County legal counsel; the Planning Commission; our elected Board of Supervisors; the State Department of Conservation, Office of Mine Reclamation; nor the State Department of Fish and Wildlife. All these agencies have reviewed the Blue Mountain Minerals Agricultural Fill area project and feel they have followed the law during the approval process. At the approval hearing, Supervisor Karl Rodefer said, "I believe that the mitigation that is desired by CEQA is accounted for and this is a good project."
The cost for Blue Mountain Minerals to pay for all the legal fees and consultants to continue with an unnecessary and additional EIR process will exceed $200,000 for this project. That cost is on top of $500,000 that was previously spent by Blue Mountain Minerals to successfully defend CSERC's first lawsuit against their EIR in 2005-2006. In that case, CSERC challenged a publicized decision by the County concerning what the proper baseline was for measuring the project's impacts. This step by CSERC was filed before Blue Mountain Mineral's EIR was even completed. The trial court ruled that the CSERC challenge was improper under CEQA. After CSERC lost the lawsuit, the group then filed an appeal. That appeal was also subsequently dismissed by the courts. Even though Blue Mountain Minerals won the lawsuit and the appeal, it was at a high cost to their business and our community. The total cost for the first project and the current project of over $700,000 means less money to reinvest in their business, fewer high-wage jobs, and less money available for supporting community needs like our schools, Meals on Wheels, the Senior Center, TuCARE, and other vital community needs.
So, once again, a small group of obstructionists are costing our community's businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are left paying the real bill, which is higher costs of goods, higher housing costs, and less tax revenue, resulting in severe budget cuts and fewer resources being invested into community nonprofits. Supervisor Karl Rodefer stated regarding Lowe's, "There was a tremendous amount of money taken out of our economy because of that litigation. The CEQA process has been bastardized over the course of time. CEQA has allowed for mitigated negative declarations, not so we could sue and settle and string out the process, but to streamline the process." Unfortunately this repeated senseless litigation negatively impacts all of us. There are better options for the small group of people behind groups like CSERC and CFRG than to continually request delays for more studies and add costs through increased requirements and fees, thereby reducing the scope of projects to the extent that they are no longer economically viable. Then when those tactics are not successful, the groups file lawsuits. We all care about protecting the environment, and there are numerous County and State regulations in place to insure that protection. Our quality of life also requires a balance, and productive ways of finding solutions that do not involve litigation and inhibit needed economic opportunities. The obstructionist groups have to realize that this is not the way to solicit donations. Eventually these tactics are going to also impact the quality of life of the few people behind these groups as our County continues to suffer little or no economic growth.

Do you and your family really want the impact of higher taxes, higher prices for goods and services, higher housing costs, fewer job opportunities, and decreased government services? Considering our aging and declining County population, sixteen years straight of decreasing school enrollment, few jobs for young families, and a multitude of other issues, we all should care about the disturbing trend of litigation imposed on many viable and needed housing, retail and economic development, or job-creation projects in Tuolumne County. Isn't it time we all stand up and say, "Enough!" Reach out to your elected officials and become involved in the process, attend meetings, write letters, and let your voice be heard.

Ron Kopf
Executive Director
Tuolumne County Business Council

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