Mining in Mariposa County and the Conditional Use Permit II 

Tuesday afternoon, November 17th, the Mariposa Board of Supervisors held a public hearing and voted to adopt proposed changes to our General Plan and zoning code related to mining operations on privately owned property (as opposed to such operations on publicly owned lands (e.g., Forest Service and BLM lands)). The second and final reading of the proposed changes is scheduled for the Board meeting on December 15, 2015.

While most all of the focus and angst about this vote involved the Conditional Use Permit (CUP), the new requirements for a CUP will likely not affect any existing mining operations and not affect most new small-scale mining operations in any way. There is however, a new Administrative Use Permit that will apply to small-scale mining operations and I will use this document to explain where and how that may apply as well as explaining the other changes in the new mining code.

From a practical standpoint, the changes approved by the Board are

(1) Mining operations that fall below the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) thresholds (less than 1 acre and 1,000 cubic yards of material) will be subject to an Administrative Use Permit;

(2) Mining operations on parcels in the Agriculture Working Landscape classification that are 160 acres or more will be subject to a Conditional Use Permit; and

(3) Existing legally permitted mining operations will be grandfathered.

Small Scale Mining and the Administrative Use Permit 

Under current County Code, any disturbance of greater than 50 cubic yards of earth, including exploratory or small-scale mining, requires a Grading Permit, but not a mining permit if the mining operation involves disturbances of less than 1 acre and/or 1,000 cubic yards of disturbed material (the SMARA thresholds, see this graphic to visualize what 1000 cubic yards looks like).

With the new mining code, operations that involve disturbances greater that require

That Administrative Use Permit involves

• Erosion and sediment control

• Boundaries of the approved work area shall be marked and maintained

• Regular inspections by staff

• Written reporting to document quantities of material processed

• Work site area shall be reclaimed (re‐contouring of the disturbed site and re‐vegetation)

• If site is abandoned, property owner responsible for completing reclamation work.

The Conditional Use Permit and Larger Parcels 

Since 2006, the County has required a Conditional Use Permit for all proposed mining projects above the SMARA thresholds, except for those on Ag Working Landscape parcels greater than 160 acres. The County was making these decisions as required by the County’s General Plan which serves as our County’s “Constitution”. Since the General Plan was passed in 2006, the only parcels that have not been subject to the Conditional Use Permit are those in Ag Working Landscape that are greater than 160 acres in size. The new County mining code will now also require a Conditional Use Permit on these larger parcels, making our mining code consistent with all other counties in Mother Lode, and most if not all other counties in the State.

Existing Legally Permitted Mining Operations will be Grandfathered

The four existing mining operations are grandfathered and will not require a CUP unless the operators propose significant increases in the size of their operations. Specifically, the Yosemite Slate Quarry, Colorado Quartz Mine, Mount Gaines Mine and Long Aggregates as currently operating, will not require a Conditional Use Permit because their current operations are grandfathered.

Details of the Meeting

The November 17th meeting started with the County Planning Director presenting the proposed changes to the General Plan and zoning ordinances, followed by input from the public and then the Supervisors voted. The Planning Director, Sarah Williams, reviewed the history of the proposed changes and noted that the process was initiated to make our zoning code consistent with the General Plan, as the current inconsistencies were leading to confusion and misunderstandings. Sarah also outlined the proposed changes, which would require a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) as part of the permitting process for future mining activity in the County on Ag Working Landscape parcels larger than 160 acres BUT ONLY IF the mining activity exceeds the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) exemption for 1 acre or 1,000 cubic yards of disturbed material. Sarah advised that, since the General Plan is the overriding document, a CUP has been required for mining above the SMARA threshold on parcels less than 160 acres since 2006 when the General Plan was adopted. No CUP is now, or would be required under the proposed changes for mining below the SMARA exemption of 1 acre or 1,000 cubic yards of disturbed material - a minimum that exempts a vast majority of current small-scale mines, as well as a majority of historical mines. The proposed changes do not affect the four existing, permitted larger-scale mining operations in the County.

Letters and emails the County received on this issue and public comments at the public hearing had many people from both sides passionately advocating that either the implementation of a CUP on large parcels was essential for preserving the County’s rural/agricultural character OR that the proposed changes would shut down all mining in the County, even gold panning, leading to our financial and cultural ruin. Many members of the public seemed to think that the proposed changes would significantly impact small-scale mining and testified accordingly, although the proposed ordinances only changed the CUP requirements for Ag Working Landscape parcels above 160 acres AND mining projects under the SMARA threshold. It sometimes seemed as though we were not all discussing the same proposal, or perhaps not everyone had actually read the proposed changes!

After the public testimony the Board voted 3:1 to accept the proposed changes. Public comments after that vote again suggested that the Board was “screwing the little guy” by taking away rights to mine. After the meeting I was also involved in a lively discussion with a well known local resident who insisted that we just voted to require a CUP on all mining, even those activities that fall under the 1 acre or 1,000 cubic yards of disturbed material exemption. After a heated discussion with no resolution, we consulted the Planning Director and she confirmed that the change to the CUP requirement would not affect mining operations under the SMARA exemption.

If we were trying to shut down small-scale mining, and WE ARE NOT, I could understand the concern on the part of those who not only derive their livelihood from such activities, but also consider it an important part of our heritage. It is very unfortunate that so much time and frankly anger was expended based on what is basically misinformation about who the proposed CUP changes would affect. Small-scale miners really have nothing to worry about in terms of new CUP requirements. The County is not taking away your right to small-scale mining on your own property!

There is one, and likely only one, mining project at the moment that might be negatively affected by the CUP requirement on larger parcels, and that is Fremont Gold, which is currently performing exploratory operations on a very large site in Bear Valley. They have been proceeding based on our current mining code that allows mining by right on their very large parcel. Our vote yesterday could be considered an indication that the County Board of Supervisors was opposed to their proposed development and that this might affect potential investors, but that would not be correct. This process is essentially intended to fix inconsistencies in our various codes pertaining to mining and also bring our mining code into consistency with all other counties in the Mother Lode, and most if not all other counties in the State. Mining goes on in other counties that require a CUP for all activity above the SMARA threshold regardless of parcel size, and there is no reason why mining should not continue in Mariposa as well.

I have met several times with Fremont Gold management and am hopeful that their proposed project will bring much needed jobs and economic development to our County, if they do what they are proposing. Fremont Gold has told to me that they are not at all concerned about getting a CUP after their exploratory work is done and they have a definite plan of action in place. Their concern is that they must raise money to finish that exploratory work and that our vote to impose a CUP now might discourage investors. I would gladly support a letter from the Board stating that Fremont Gold’s efforts at mining development are welcome in the County, and that the eventual requirement for a CUP should not be seen as a problem if, in fact, they carry out the type of environmentally sensitive operations they have described at our various meetings. Fremont Gold has indicated that such a letter would be helpful, should a CUP be required, in assuring their investors that the County government is not hostile to their efforts. I see no reason why Fremont Gold needs to apply for a CUP before the exploratory work is done and they are ready to deal with SMARA, CEQA and other requirement for their mining permit.

I hope that in the future we can all work together to assure that Mariposa County moves forward in developing our full economic potential for commercial mining in the County while assuring neighbors that their property and other rights are also protected. Communication is essential and people might well question input from those who have said that we are trying to ban all mining in the County. It is simply not true.