Published: 16 February 2012 07:05 AM

Seven years of debate over a proposed Temecula-area rock quarry came down to a tense hearing and a swing vote as Riverside County supervisors voted 3-2 Thursday to reject one of the most divisive land-use projects in recent memory.

Cheers erupted, tears flowed and orange hats were waved by orange-clad Liberty Quarry opponents as the Board of Supervisors denied an appeal by quarry developer Granite Construction.

The developer had hailed its proposed open-pit mine as a traffic-cutting economic booster shot, but critics called it a potentially deadly menace. The appeal challenged last summer’s denial of the project by the county Planning Commission.

As the outcome became apparent, green-shirted quarry supporters walked out of the supervisors’ hearing room at the County Administrative Center in Riverside. Opponents shouted “Thank You!” to the board and exchanged hugs and smiles in the lobby.

“It means I don’t have to move,” said Ronald Glusac of French Valley, who said he contracted the lung disease silicosis from living near a quarry.

Whether the quarry project is dead remained unclear immediately after the vote. Granite’s options could include challenging the decision in court or submitting a new quarry application to the county.

An e-mailed statement from Granite spokeswoman Karie Reuther didn’t address what the Watsonville-based corporation would do next.

“We’re very disappointed by today’s decision by the board as the environmental studies clearly show this project would be good for Riverside County,” the statement read.

“Unfortunately, this region still faces a looming shortage of aggregate that will have to continue to be met by importing materials from distant sources. This is not a sustainable practice and will come at a growing cost to the region’s traffic conditions, air quality and economy.”

Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, called the vote “absolutely gratifying.” Tribal officials said the quarry would have destroyed a sacred site.

“We think they made the correct moral decision,” Macarro said.

Temecula Mayor Chuck Washington said he was “shaking” when the vote took place.

“I can’t remember being so excited,” he said. “It’s so phenomenal … That project would have forever changed the Temecula Valley.”

Riverside resident Demetrio Gomez, who wore a green pro-quarry button, said supervisors denied the quarry because “they needed to get re-elected.”

“I can understand that, but at the same time, they don’t need a job,” Gomez said. “Most of us do.”

A board divided

Supervisors Bob Buster, Jeff Stone and John Tavaglione voted against Granite’s appeal, while Marion Ashley and John Benoit supported the quarry.

After questioning Granite’s hired experts, county officials and Macarro, supervisors offered detailed arguments for and against the quarry.

In a statement that lasted more than 10 minutes, Stone, a former Temecula councilman whose district includes the city, said the quarry’s health and safety risks outweighed any “alleged” and “highly questionable” benefits.

He faulted many aspects of the quarry’s 8,500-page environmental impact report, which concluded a smaller version of the project was better than no quarry at all, because diesel-belching aggregate trucks would continue to travel long distances if the quarry never were built.

The county requires developers to pay private consultants to write such reports. County planners reviewed the report and recommended the Planning Commission approve the smaller quarry. But Stone said Granite’s selection of the report’s authors presented a conflict of interest.

“You can hire a consultant to bring about any conclusion you want,” he said, adding that he wanted to change the report-writing process so the county had more control.

Benoit, who represents desert communities, spoke next. He said he was guided by the basic principle that unless “clear and factual” harm could be proven to a project’s neighbors, then private property owners have the right to develop their land in accordance with zoning rules.

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