Temecula may use annexation to slow mineadmin
Temecula might try to wrestle land-use control from Riverside County by annexing a 4,600-acre swath of sparsely populated, mountainous land that includes a hotly debated granite mine proposal.
The City Council on Tuesday night unanimously backed a request by one of its members, Jeff Comerchero, to study the possibility of annexing a 7-square- mile area that would include the Liberty Quarry site. After the vote, Comerchero said the city could move quickly with an in-house feasibility study and follow that with an annexation application to a county boundary-setting agency.
He said the reasons for such an annexation would be to control land-use decisions in that region and to ensure that existing open space in the area would remain intact.
“This is not a complicated annexation,” Comerchero said. “It is my hope that this can be affected within four to six months of our application.”
But he cautioned that there is no certainty that, once the in-house study is done in one to 1 Â½ months, Temecula would press ahead with the application or that the seven-member county Local Agency Formation Commission would approve such an annexation.
“Do I know it’s going to happen? No,” Comerchero said.
The council vote and the possibility that Temecula could quickly stretch to the San Diego County line west of Interstate 15 prompted the quarry developer to question whether the city might be doing so to derail the mine plan.
“It appears that the city is trying to circumvent the (planning) process and kill the project before even waiting to see what the environmental impact report says,” Gary Johnson, a spokesman for the Liberty Quarry development plan, said in a Wednesday morning telephone interview.
Johnson said he prefers the quarry proposal be reviewed by the county because statements made by Comerchero and other council members, as well as a previous council vote to set aside $500,000 to fight the mine plan in court if needed, show the city has lost its objectivity on a project that would bring significant economic benefits to the area.
“Their motives are very clear and they are trying to circumvent the process that we’re in now,” Johnson said.
He said the developer, Granite Construction Co., hopes that a draft environmental report is finished this spring and, after a written response period, public hearings can begin this summer or fall.
A 310-acre parcel just inside Riverside County’s boundary west of I-15 has been identified as the mine site. Although much of the land within the mine site would remain as open space, the project would flank part of the 4,344-acre Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve.
Officials at the reserve, which is operated by San Diego State University, oppose the mine because of the impact that dust, noise and lights could have on plants, wildlife and sensitive experiments. Granite officials have said a mine would not harm the reserve and the two facilities could coexist as neighbors.
Under Comerchero’s proposal, the portion of the reserve that is within Riverside County would be added to Temecula’s boundary. During Tuesday’s council hearing, Matt Rahn, who heads SDSUs field stations program, praised a possible annexation and said the reserve would welcome closer ties with the city and the improved police, code-enforcement and other municipal services that would be provided.
He said the reserve would remain open space whether or not it is part of the city.
Clif Hewlett, a leader of a hillside protection and mine opposition group, also praised Temecula’s possible annexation of the mine site and reserve land. Mine foes have held rallies, collected signatures and taken other steps to oppose the project.
George J. Spiliotis, LAFCO executive officer, said such an annexation request by Temecula “would be an unusual proposal.” He said most annexation applications are submitted to aid future growth or to provide municipal services to an established, developed area.
Spiliotis said he could recall only one other open-space annexation in his 17 years working for the county agency. That annexation, which occurred in Palm Desert, included 1 square mile of open space that was part of a larger development plan and golf course, he said.
He said annexations are generally aimed at encouraging orderly development, not stopping it. But there are also provisions in state law that can be interpreted as encouraging cities to annex open space tracts.
“There are all sorts of conflicting objectives in the act itself,” he said Wednesday.
The council action and a request from LAFCO last year have raised new questions about whether, or in what direction, the city might ultimately expand.
Last year, LAFCO sent Temecula a letter asking it to study the possibility of someday annexing parts or all of its sphere of influence, a belt of unincorporated land that surrounds a city. Similar letters were sent to other cities within LAFCO’s jurisdiction, Spiliotis said.
In June, the city set aside $25,000 during its budget process to do a feasibility study of one or more potential future annexations. In a vote unrelated to Comerchero’s proposal, the council Tuesday night agreed to pay a Los Angeles consultant $35,000 to do that study. That work, to be done by Stanley R. Hoffman Associates, is expected to take about three months to complete, city finance officials said.
The Hoffman study would include the 4,600-acre tract sought by Comerchero, but not study it in greater detail than other areas within the city’s sphere of influence, city officials said.
If approved, the annexation sought by Comerchero would more than triple all the unincorporated land that the city has added since it incorporated in December 1989.
Temecula covered 26 square miles when it became a city. The three annexations approved by LAFCO since incorporation added 2 square miles, according to a city general plan approved by the council in April 2005.
Each of those three annexations — Vail Ranch, Roripaugh Ranch and Redhawk — was years in the making. Redhawk was the most controversial annexation, and it took two votes of residents and about 12 years to complete. The city began its first steps to annex Roripaugh Ranch, which is slated for development, in August 1998. The annexation of that 640-acre development site took effect in February 2003.
Temecula’s general plan indicates that the city’s sphere of influence covers about 24 square miles. It takes in the ridgeline west of the city, but stops short of the wine country to the east. It extends to the San Diego County line to the south on both sides of I-15. It also flanks the east side of Winchester Road, extending beyond French Valley Airport to the north but stopping short of Lake Skinner.