SANTA ANA — The Orange County Board of Supervisors gave unanimous approval Tuesday to a nearly threefold expansion of a controversial quarry mining operation near the Cleveland National Forest, rejecting arguments from environmental groups opposed to the scope of the project.
The decision, ending more than a year of debate, allows the Ortega Rock Quarry to tear down a 3,700-foot-long ridge in Lucas Canyon, expand its operation to 96 acres and build a concrete processing plant on the site.
The expansion was approved on a 5-0 vote with little discussion by the board. Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, whose district includes the quarry site, called the expansion "a logical extension of the existing quarry operation."
The three-decades-old quarry operation now sits on 38 acres in southeast Orange County, bounded by the Cleveland National Forest and Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park within one of the region's most untouched rural enclaves. Officials describe the quarry site as a unique resource because it contains very hard rock used in jetty and flood-control channels.
"This is the only mine of its sort in Orange County," County Zoning Administrator Timothy Neely told supervisors at Tuesday's hearing.
Critics from several leading environmental groups, however, attacked not only the potential ecological hazards of the mining expansion, but also the process used by the county to review the quarry's permit application.
The environmentalists maintained that the public was largely shut out of the review process. Ray Chandos, secretary of the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, also voiced his "extreme displeasure" over the fact that quarry consultants took the county's five planning commissioners and at least three staff people out to lunch after a tour of the site in February, just a few weeks before the Planning Commission approved the plan.
The lunches, which a quarry spokeswoman said averaged $12 per person, fell well within gift allowances set by state law. Environmentalists nonetheless questioned the ethical propriety of such an arrangement.
Neely, one of those taken to lunch, said: "I don't personally see a conflict. . . . There has been a longstanding practice on Planning Commission field trips that when the commission is at a site, typically the applicant will provide refreshments and lunch. It's a practical matter."
Representatives from four environmental groups sought unsuccessfully Tuesday to have the supervisors postpone a vote on the issue, saying that they hoped to scale back the scope of the expansion by about eight acres.
Environmentalists argued that in its present form, the expansion will endanger vegetation and wildlife in the area around Ortega Creek and will likely derail plans for the construction of a hiking trail. More troubling, they said, is the prospect of even greater expansion ahead.
Charlotte Clarke, a botanist with the Orange County Fund for Environmental Defense, said: "It's the old toe in the door thing. Next time, they'll come back for more expansion, and they'll probably end up in Caspers Park."
Quarry spokeswoman Julia A. Kelly said the idea of the company expanding into surrounding park land is "ludicrous."
The quarry's general manager and other officials attended Tuesday's hearing but did not address the board to answer the criticism from the environmental groups. "That's why you have county staff there," Kelly said.
Quarry operators have come under criticism in the past for allegedly operating a rock crusher without a permit and shuttling trucks in and out of the canyon on a road graded without a permit. But Neely said he is confident that the company will meet all regulations imposed under Tuesday's agreement.