County affirms 100-year-old quarry has vested rights

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier A standing-room-only crowd listens as the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors affirms a local limestone quarry's vested rights to mine the land.


The Lehigh Southwest Cement Plant limestone quarry – widely supported but just as contested – will not have to secure a use permit for several parcels within its 2,000-plus acreage, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors ruled last week.

*Note: this version of the article has been updated to reflect corrections to particular hearing dates scheduled.*

At a standing-room-only hearing Feb. 8, supervisors unanimously affirmed the century-old quarry’s operators vested right to mine 13 parcels purchased before 1948, prior to county zoning laws that would require use permits. Lehigh is located on unincorporated county land adjacent to Los Altos and Cupertino.

The five supervisors recognized that the company has mined – or had the intent to mine – the parcels consistently since the 1930s, despite a change in ownership.

“What the county did ... was to once again certify that our use on those parcels was legally nonconforming,” Lehigh’s land-use specialist Marvin Howell said in an interview after the hearing. He added that vested rights “flow with the land, not the ownership.”

Los Altos Hills resident Bill Almon, founder of watchdog group QuarryNo, said he was disappointed in the county’s actions.

“All the supes did was kick the can down the road,” he said. “With vesting, the county gave away its ability to monitor (the facility). … The problems are still there.”

District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman explained that although the county grandfathered the land, Lehigh is not exempt from environmental guidelines.

“‘Vested’ rights doesn’t mean it can break the law,” said Wasserman, echoing one Lehigh supporter who spoke during the public hearing. “Any approval by the county is subject to compliance by the applicant to state and federal regulations.”

County supervisors last week addressed the extent of the quarry’s vested rights. Several of the 119 public speakers listed environmental and health concerns, but supervisors limited decisions to land-use issues.

Howell acknowledged the cement company’s plan to expand its mining operations to a second pit and the need for a use permit to do so. An Environmental Impact Report for what the company has called its “comprehensive reclamation plan” is scheduled for release within sometime in fall 2011 and a public hearing is scheduled for winter 2011.

An EIR for the quarry's East Material Storage Area is scheduled for release in May, and a hearing for summer 2011.

The Environmental Protection Agency last year accused Lehigh of Clean Air Act violations stemming from equipment changes made in the late 1990s that allegedly increased sulfur and nitrogen-dioxide emissions.

The company said it has since reduced mercury emissions by 25 percent and plans further reductions through implementation of new technology.

Still, many community members aren’t happy with allegedly harmful benzene, arsenic, chromium and mercury emissions, which Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials have said don’t exceed public notification thresholds. The cement plant is also subject to regulation by state and federal agencies.

“If there’s anything that’s grandfathered, it’s the right to breathe fresh air,” said one resident who spoke at the hearing.

Howell said he and his company “look forward to working with the community on the reclamation plan.”

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