RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA : County to Scrutinize Remote Rock Quarry

A high-ranking county official has ordered an inspection of a controversial Rancho Mission Viejo rock quarry that is seeking to triple its operations on future county parkland despite a history of permit and code violations.

Thomas B. Mathews, planning director for the county's Environmental Management Agency, said he and a special team of investigators will tour the quarry in remote Lucas Canyon on Jan. 15. The team will include representatives of the EMA's planning and regulatory staff and the office of EMA Director Mike Ruane.

Mathews said he ordered the inspection after reviewing reports from county staff about the record of the mining operation and "the possible misuse or improper management of the existing operation."

Based on county inspection records, The Times reported that Ortega Rock Quarry has run an illegal sand and gravel pit in the remote canyon about nine miles east of San Juan Capistrano for at least the past two years.

The operation has expanded from an original permit to mine boulders on 15 acres to more than 40 acres, intruded into county wilderness, contaminated a pond and stream, and lined pristine Lucas Canyon with piles of debris, county officials say.

Ortega Rock has been notified of at least 10 possible violations of the county's health, water and fire codes. Regulators say most of those problems have been corrected. But, county records show, the quarry has continued to operate a rock crusher without a permit and shuttles trucks in and out of the canyon across Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park on a road graded without a permit.

"This is basically a fact-finding tour," Mathews said. "We will look at essentially two areas of importance: the violations we have been made aware of and the request for a continued operation and the expansion of the project area."

If code violations are found, the county could either demand an immediate response by Ortega Rock or, possibly, grant the quarry the expansion it wants with a list of new conditions.

"It all depends on the seriousness of the problems," Mathews said, adding that the tour and a report of its findings should be finished by the end of the month.

John R. Schmutz, the general manager of Ortega Rock, has declined to comment on the situation.

Ortega Rock has submitted an application to expand its operation to 126 acres over a 75-year period. An environmental impact report is beginning, and the Board of Supervisors will have to rule eventually on the expansion proposal.

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, whose jurisdiction includes Rancho Mission Viejo, has declined to comment on the quarry. He indicated that he had heard from representatives from both sides of the issue, including complaints about the mining activity from environmentalists, as well as pleas of the need for the mined material from the quarry industry.

The quarry is located on leased Rancho Mission Viejo land about two miles up picturesque Lucas Canyon, which is near Cleveland National Forest and Caspers Park.

Although the property sits within 348 acres zoned for mining, it is part of a 2,225-acre parcel dedicated to the county as parkland in 1983 by the Santa Margarita Co., a South County development company that runs the ranch.

That agreement allowed the company to develop the planned community of Rancho Santa Margarita. As part of that deal, however, the entire acreage will not officially become part of Caspers Park until the mining operation is shut down.

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