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The Quarry Quandry

What's a serene neighborhood - or vital business - to do?

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The San Rafael Rock Quarry is one of those places most in Marin know little about, while a few know everything about it. Located on an elbow of land jutting into San Pablo Bay, the quarry is a passing curiosity for hikers headed to China Camp State Park or golfers bound for the Peacock Gap Country Club. It’s nearly invisible from Point San Pedro Road save for its proximity to the towering smokestacks of the adjacent McNear Brickyard.

Still, those who live in Peacock Gap and neighboring communities are all too aware of the quarry. They know the rumble of rock-laden big rigs; the thump of explosives turning big rocks into little ones; and the dusty grit in the air. They also know how to take the quarry to court in an effort to reconcile two disparate parts of Marin: the tranquil suburban life they envisioned, and an important industrial business that existed long before the first neighboring home .

For these neighbors, the quarry amounts to a noisy nightmare in their midst. “Their 18-wheeler trucks rumble by within 20 feet of our bedroom. It’s like we’re living on the 880 freeway,” says Dr. Denise Lucy, a business professor at Dominican University and co-president of the Point San Pedro Road Coalition, a neighborhood group formed to keep the quarry’s operations in check. “And when they’re blasting, people in houses across from the quarry say it feels like an earthquake.”

For the owner, the Dutra Group, the quarry is a successful business that employs more than 175 people full time and uses much of the 1.5 million tons of rock it excavates each year to keep California’s delicate water system intact. “Right now we’re involved in rebuilding the Sacramento Delta’s levee system,” says Bill Dutra, chief executive of the 103-year-old company and grandson of its founder. “If those levees ever fail, the state’s water supply would be endangered, thousands of lives could be lost, and we’re talking about $40 billion in economic damages.”It’s the classic quandary of people vs. industry. Factor in that the communities are in one jurisdiction (the City of San Rafael) and the quarry is in another (the County of Marin), and the quandary looks more like a quagmire.

The Quarry
To find the quarry, head out of San Rafael past Trader Joe’s on Third Street until it becomes Point San Pedro Road, which continues east to the Loch Lomond Marina, Peacock Gap and China Camp—all are neighbors. The 272-acre waterfront quarry, however, was there first. Bestowed with rich deposits of clay and shale, the area was a viable brickyard as far back as 1870. When hard-rock quarrying began in 1929, hardly a soul lived nearby.

After World War II, with the property ambivalently zoned “heavy industrial/limited agricultural” and Marin County beginning to burgeon, the neighborhood began to fill with homes and people. With them came discord. It was also a period when decisions regarding the quarry’s operations were less than well defined. A he said/we did/they said/I did culture is the lasting result.

Wrangling over the quarry began in 1972 and continues today as a maelstrom of governmental acronyms, conflicting reports and overlapping dates. The county issued mining permits; the quarry indicated it would shut down by 1993; county supervisors rezoned the property to be compatible with surrounding areas; and real estate developers, lusting after the bayside land, began getting their building plans approved. Further complicating matters, the quarry was bought and sold several times during all the giving and taking.

Bill Dutra, an up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur, purchased the quarry in 1986. He saw a lucrative opportunity where others saw the proverbial (and literal) rock and a hard place. More than 20 years later, it’s reasonable to say he has taken the quarry’s operations to a higher—and, say neighbors, a noisier and dustier—level.

The San Rafael Rock Quarry is one of only two such waterfront operations in California (the other is on Southern California’s Catalina Island). Having bay frontage means eight-ton boulders, riprap and gravel can be placed directly on barges, then guided by tugboat to destinations like Pacifica and the Delta. An equal amount of the quarry’s product leaves on trucks that make their way down Point San Pedro Road to job sites throughout Marin and Sonoma counties.

The geographic highlight and physical low point of the quarry is the Main Quarry Bowl, aka the “pit,” a jagged, benched gash in the earth that, measuring west to east, is six football fields wide and drops from 250 feet above sea level to an equal distance below. At the bottom, visible over a precipitous edge, is a 50-foot-deep basin of rainwater. Current mining is centered on South Hill, where, says General Manager Steve Long, “there’s between 15 to 20 years of Franciscan sandstone yet to be mined.”

To a visitor, the scene inside the quarry borders on the surreal. A spidery maze of conveyor belts and sorters moves tons of rock from ground to truck. Huge yellow front-loaders with scoops the size of cars and biodiesel-powered dump trucks with monster wheels zip with surprising agility between towering cones of material. Rising from what appears to be piles of rubble everywhere, but is in fact part of the $90 million in product generated at the quarry each year, are an asphalt batching plant, two crushing plants and three loading docks for the barges. To tour the quarry is to receive a firsthand look at how the industrial age works.
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