On Oct. 21 the Napa County Planning Commission will hold yet another in a seemingly endless string of public meetings regarding an updated and revised permit request by Syar Industries for its Napa Quarry. In August they were forced to delay making a decision because project opposition dropped a mountain of data in their laps at the 11th hour in a deliberate attempt to slow down the public process. The new data seemingly changes nothing, yet it costs taxpayers time and money by slowing down an abused public review process. It also has the effect of destabilizing our local economy.
Next week’s meeting will be the same hearing, same arguments, same voices – with no guarantee of an actual outcome. No guards against more last-minute stall tactics from the opposition. Such is the life of an economically critical project held in the snare of the California Environmental Quality Act’s (CEQA) Environmental Impact Report process.
Syar Industries first submitted their new permit application in 2007. Since that time we’ve elected a new president whose two terms are now nearly complete, the San Francisco Giants have won three World Series titles, and NASA’s New Horizons space probe traveled the full 954 million miles between Jupiter and Pluto.
And in that time Napa County still hasn’t completed the Syar permit process.
Syar Industries is one of Napa County’s most important companies. Syar has owned Napa Quarry since the mid-’80s, however Napa Quarry has operated in the hills east of Napa Vallejo Highway for well over a century. Napa Quarry is the county’s only local source of aggregate. Syar aggregate is the source material for most of our roads and public buildings. Odds are the home you slept in last night was built using Syar materials.
However, under the current permit Syar will run out of basalt rock to mine at Napa Quarry within the next year. One would think that starting to tackle this issue in 2007 would have staved off disaster, but it hasn’t – and the threat of Syar being forced to massively reduce its operations in 2016 is very real. It will cost the county good-paying jobs and force an unknown but scary increase in cost for public and private projects alike. The county’s lack of urgency on this is astounding.
So, why is Syar twisting in the wind? It certainly isn’t for lack of review. The county hired a team of independent consultants to compile the project’s Environmental Impact Report, and that team came back with a positive recommendation of the project. To make the plan more workable, Syar drastically reduced the size of its proposal, and for their trouble have been rewarded with more hearings and more delays.
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The answer lies in an overall lack of leadership within the county government to call out an issue of clear CEQA abuse. In this case NIMBYs are the perpetrators and county staff are the enablers who are too scared of their own shadows to tell the Planning Commission that it’s time to move forward. Whether they are fearful of litigation or being at the center of controversy, the bottom line is that they are afraid. County staff doesn’t seem to realize that their fear isn’t a reflection on Syar’s project, it’s an indictment of their ability to shepherd a major project through the approval process.
This is never what CEQA was intended to be. Originally a cutting-edge environmental reform signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan and mimicked by other states, CEQA is now a dinosaur process subject to gross manipulation. CEQA is under fire statewide by scores of reform groups because everyone knows that NIMBYs have learned to game the system when local leadership is weak. The result is the widespread acknowledgement by leaders of all political stripes that much of California’s economic woes are self-inflicted. CEQA abuse is directly responsible for thousands of lost jobs across California and higher costs for everyone. The Napa Quarry permit is our own local example of how this problem plays out.
The worst part of this saga isn’t that the NIMBYs are manipulating the county. After all, they are acting very predictably. Dumping hundreds of pages at public hearings in order to force more public hearings is what they do. The onus is on county staff to show backbone and for the Planning Commission to hold their staff accountable for doing so. Syar has fulfilled every legal obligation to moving forward, and the county owes them an up-or-down vote.
Syar could seek a ballot box solution to moving this forward if the county continues to falter, but Napa residents should demand that county planners take action to avoid that scenario. We should insist that our planning process work the way it is supposed to instead of asking Napa voters to legislate for them.
Napa County still has one more chance to finally get it right after years of doing it wrong. On Oct. 21, the Napa County Planning Commission will hear this issue again. Napa residents should demand that they approve this important project on that day with no more tabling or studying. Napa County needs to be a part of the CEQA solution immediately.
Anderson lives in Napa.