By Miriam Raftery
Updates: The deadline for public comments has been extended to Feb. 28 at 4 p.m. Send comments to Robert Hingtgen at Robert.Hingtgen@sdcounty.ca.gov.
The Jan. 12 meeting referenced in the video has been cancelled due to COVID-19. The Jan. 19 virtual meeting will still be held.
January 11, 2022 (Rancho San Diego) – The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Cottonwood Sand Mining project fails to address serious impacts to the community, say organizers of the Stop Cottonwood Sand Mine effort-- and they are urging the public to speak out.
“We believe the Project DEIR is a flawed document that does not adequately analyze the significant impacts of the Project to the people, wildlife, water, air, and roads of the community,” Elizabeth Urquhart stated in an email to ECM. “The DEIR does not propose adequate mitigation or alternatives to address those impacts.”
Barry Jantz contends the project is also incompatible with the county’s general plan as well as the Valle de Oro Community Plan, thus also violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
In an exclusive interview with ECM aired on KNSJ, Urquhart and Jantz, organizers of efforts to oppose the massive project, shared their concerns and urged the public to speak out at virtual public meetings or via email before the February 14 deadline for public comment.
The project proposed by New West Investments seeks to mine sand on 251 of the 280-acre site occupied by Cottonwood Golf Course along the Sweetwater River in Rancho San Diego. The developer contends the aggregate sand is needed for concrete used in roadways and construction projects.
The mining would be done in phases over the next 10-12 years, followed by reclamation that would take several more years to restore the property. The site is adjacent to homes and a federal wildlife preserve, also close to schools and businesses.
Draft EIR highlights
The draft EIR found aesthetics, or views, to be the only serious impact that can’t be mitigated.
It found mitigation measures could reduce impacts to be less than significant for biological and cultural resources, noise, and paleontological resources.
Astoundingly, it found the project would not have any potential significant impact (meaning no mitigation would be needed) on air quality, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous materials, hydrology and water quality, land use and planning, transportation/traffic, agriculture, forestry resources, geology and soils, mineral resources, population and housing, public services, recreation, utilities and service systems, and wildfires.
“It’s important for us to reach out to experts that we know in the community and across San Diego to assist us with responding to the EIR,” Urquhart says.
The Sierra Club, Audobon Society, a hydrology expert, biologists, construction professionals and others are assisting in that review. The group has outreached to a local tribe but is seeking a cultural resources expert to review the draft EIR. “That’s definitely an area of need,” Urquhart told ECM.
Key concerns over community impacts
“We’re going to have a hauling truck going by every two minutes,” Urquhart says. The trucks will run Mondays through Fridays from around 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with sand processing starting at 7 a.m. utilizing heavy equipment. “That won’t be mitigated,” Urquhart notes. That’s 176 trips, or 88 round trips, daily. In addition, 18 large trucks will be lined up along Willow Glen waiting to pick up sand.
Jantz says two new entrances will enable trucks to make left turns several times each hour onto Willow Glen, an already heavily trafficked roadway with congestion near Steele Canyon High School. “As soon as you have an emergency…paramedics or fire needing to respond, there is definitely potential for delay,” he says. Delays could also impact residents evacuating during a major wildfire.
Noise is another concern. The developer has proposed barriers 8-12 feet high. But Urquhart says residents live at various elevations in the valley and along the river, including some with homes next door to the proposed mining site. “You can’t mitigate all of it,” she maintains.
Although the project is directly upstream from the Sweetwater National Wildlife Refuge, the developer has proposed little to minimize impacts on threatened and endangered species in the preserve other than moving back operations from certain nesting birds “to the extent feasible.” Urquhart opines, “It’s going to be whatever the heck they want, without regard to the biological impacts.”
There are also health concerns. “This sand has the ability to cause Valley Fever and other respiratory diseases,” says Urquhart, adding that the site is very close to Jamul Elementary School and a park used by local sports teams. Respiratory ailments also pose potential to aggravate existing lung problems, such as those experienced by some survivors of COVID-19.
The draft EIR claims the project won’t impact recreation, even though it eliminates a golf course. Jantz notes the site “is zoned for recreation use,” adding that he believes the projects is not compatible with existing land uses.
The Valle de Oro community plan “wants to retain a unique balance of urban, semi-rural, agricultural and open space land uses. New development must conserve natural resources and topography” Jantz notes.
The developer claims it will comply with those requirements by ultimately restoring the land once the project is completed. But Jantz caused that logic flawed, stating, “If someone has a child going into kindergarten at the beginning of this, that child will be going into college at the end.”
Jantz concedes the need for aggregate sand for construction projects. But he contends, “Just because something is needed doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to mine it anywhere.”
Urquhart recalls when the developer gave a presentation to the Valle de Oro planning group several years ago. “They were asked to show us a similar project, an industrial sand mind in the middle of a residential area with homes, businesses, schools and senior centers…they couldn’t name one at all in California.”
Urquhart argues that the DEIR is so deeply flawed that it should be reissued for public review before any major use permit could be issued, so the public can understand the full impacts.
“They really glossed over it,” she told ECM. “They are not telling us the truth in terms of what can happen…It’s inappropriate.”
Why public comments are important
Urquhart says it’s “crucial” for everyone to weigh in with comments, which create an administrative record. “That is important because the developer must respond to all of those, and then if the project is approved, we do have our record of concerns – and we do have the ability for lawsuits at that point.”
Once an EIR is approved, a major use permit would ultimately have to be approved by both the County Planning Commission and the County Board of Supervisors, who can consider additional issues beyond those covered by the EIR, such as impacts on property values.
“Any impact people see, it’s important to weigh in on,” says Jantz. “Focus on how the project will impact you – whether noise, traffic, views, or emergency response – that’s a big one, wildlife, that’s huge….it’s about quality of life.”
How to submit comments
The County plans a virtual meeting for the pubic to weigh in:
Wednesday, January 19 from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
The online/call-in meeting may be accessed at this web link: https://bit.ly/CottonwoodSandMine or the meeting can be accessed by calling (619) 343-2539 and providing conference ID number 972 237 701#.
(Note: An earlier Jan. 12 in-person meeting has been cancelled due to COVID-19)
You can also email comments to Robert.Hingtgen@sdcountyca.gov before February 14 at 4 p.m.
The Valle de Oro Planning Group is also expected to have the sand mine on the agenda at its February 1st meeting, where the developer may make a presentation and where the Stop Cottonwood Sand Mine group expects to submit input.