Quarry project manager Gary Johnson, foreground right, sits quietly as… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
The fastest-growing county in California rejected a massive, mountaintop rock quarry Thursday that supporters called an essential source of the ingredients that fed the region's economic ascent.
In the end, however, neighborhood objections to increased traffic, possible health hazards and environmental destruction won out, a rare outcome in the pro-development frontier of the Inland Empire.
Fierce opposition in Temecula, a city known for its vineyard-covered valley and rock-ribbed conservative politics, persuaded the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to vote down the proposed rock mine by a 3-2 vote, despite the promise of hundreds of new blue-collar jobs to the recession-flattened region.
Temecula City Councilman Jeff Comerchero called the vote a "watershed" moment for a county that had been used as Southern California's back lot for mining, landfills, prisons and other less glamorous necessities.
"I don't think the county of Riverside was strong enough politically or economically to really understand our image, of what we wanted to be, 20 years ago,'' Comerchero said. "This vote says that we really do have the right to determine what happens in our communities.''
Veteran Inland Empire economist John Husing, a consultant for the mining company, offered a less charitable assessment. He said the influx of upscale housing in Riverside and San Bernardino counties over the last decade coincided with rising opposition to major mines, jails and similar employers — sources of blue-collar jobs in a region where nearly half the workforce has only a high school diploma.
"The people who moved out here think of themselves as upper crust,'' Husing said. "And the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) attitude is very strong.''
Watsonville-based Granite Construction had proposed a 414-acre rock mine, known as Liberty Quarry, on a mountain that looms over the 15 Freeway in the southwest corner of the county, an upscale suburban haven that has attracted thousands of new families drawn by the quiet neighborhoods, good schools and gentle hills east of the Santa Ana Mountains.
The company would have mined about 270 million tons of granite over 75 years, supplying building material to northern San Diego County and southwest Riverside County.
Four days of marathon testimony and deliberations drew busloads of union members in favor of the mine and busloads of Temecula community groups against it.
"There are just too many uncertainties to me,'' said Supervisor John Tavaglione, whose district includes several similar mines in Corona.
Tavaglione appeared to be the swing vote against the project, siding with Supervisors Jeff Stone of Temecula and Bob Buster of Riverside. Voting in favor were Supervisors John Benoit of Indio and Marion Ashley of Perris.
In a statement, the company said it was "very disappointed by today's decision by the board as the environmental studies clearly show this project would be good for Riverside County.''
Gary Johnson, project manager for the proposed quarry, said one option for Granite may be to submit a revised proposal.
Granite won support from business leaders and chamber of commerce groups outside the city in part by stressing that the quarry would create 99 mining-related jobs and hundreds of more indirect jobs with local suppliers and support companies.
The argument was not lost on the supervisors, who oversee a county decimated by the economic downtown and a 12.5% unemployment rate, one of the highest in California. Earlier this month, medical device manufacturer Abbott Labs, the Temecula area's largest employer, laid off 300 workers.
Roger Wright, an unemployed 29-year-old laborer who lives a mile east of the proposed mine site, told the supervisors earlier this week that he was two weeks away from losing his house and car.
"To say we are currently scraping by is an understatement,'' Wright said. "We, like so many others in our situation, need the project to happen.''
Opponents included the city, Temecula wineries, local school districts, the regional tourism council, area avocado growers and the local chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians also launched an aggressive campaign against the mine, which would be a few hundred yards from the reservation and loom over the tribe's four-star resort casino.
Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said Granite's proposed mine was on a mountain where Luiseño people believe all life was created, akin to the Garden of Eden.
"We only have one creation site. Only one," Macarro told the supervisors shortly before the vote. "Once it's destroyed, once it's eviscerated by a mine ... it's gone."