City: Open space concession led to Cemex lawsuit dismissal

Abandoned equipment stands on the site of the Cemex site in Canyon Country. Dan Watson/The Signal

City officials acknowledged for the first time Wednesday an informal agreement on the surface rights of the proposed Cemex mine site in Soledad Canyon led the mining company to drop its lawsuit against Santa Clarita in July.

Santa Clarita and Cemex officials have previously declined comment on what prompted Cemex to seek a dismissal of its 2017 lawsuit against the city, which was dismissed last summer.

Prior to the agreement, city of Santa Clarita officials had been considering the possibility of annexing the land to the city and/or potentially relinquishing the property’s surface rights — which the city owns — so it could be designated as a gateway to the newly designated San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The property has been the focus of a two-decade political battle over plans by Cemex to develop a massive sand-and-gravel mine there.

“Cemex, actually, at one point did sue the city because we had accepted as open space land the property that Cemex would need for mining,” Mayor Marsha McLean said in a meeting Wednesday with members of the local media. “So, we had to kind of cut back on that end and tell them that OK, fine, we’re not going to be pursuing that open space.”

In March, it was announced that the federal Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled one of Cemex’s two contracts invalid, with the other scheduled to expire in mid-2020 — leading local leaders to conclude that the mine will not be developed since so little time remains for Cemex to jump through the remaining necessary regulatory hoops.

Mike Murphy, intergovernmental relations manager for the city, said the city could still consider the conveyance of surface ownership of the proposed Cemex mine site to be designated as open space land depending on the outcome of the building material company’s contracts over the coming months. In such a scenario, the property could serve as an entrance to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

“The city, for a number of years, was in informal conversations with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture that, once the mining contracts are fully extinguished, the city would seriously look at the conveyance of surface ownership for the northern entrance of the (national monument),” Murphy said. “Depending on how all this plays out with the contracts, it will dictate when and if that actually occurs.”

The latest Cemex lawsuit against the city was filed in late-December 2017 in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging the city attempted to annex the site as a tactic to shut down the mining project. Furthermore, the mining company claimed breach of contract, civil rights violations, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and declaratory relief.

“Now, 12 years after signing the settlement agreement, the city and its affiliates are acting in total disregard of the settlement agreement’s terms, and have breached the agreement in multiple ways,” the 2017 lawsuit said, referring to a previous settlement. “The city has once again proposed to annex the Soledad Canyon Project site, once again without the environmental review and notices to Cemex that are required under the settlement agreement and state law.”

On July 9, 2018, Cemex attorneys asked the court to dismiss the 2017 case. A planned city annexation was renamed the Eastside Open Space Annexation and no longer included land from the proposed mine site.  

“What the settlement entailed, in part, was the city removing the proposed mining area from any annexation activity and the city did that, and Cemex responded by agreeing with a settlement and not move forward (with the lawsuit),” said Murphy.

At this point, however, the city will have to wait and see how Cemex will respond following the ruling from the Interior Board of Land Appeals released in March, which in part said that Cemex’s mining rights in Soledad Canyon expire in July 2020. Cemex still has several months ahead to take action, which could include an appeal asking the federal courts to overturn the IBLA ruling.

City officials, including Councilman Bob Kellar, said during a March news conference that they will “continue to be vigilant in our efforts over the next 16 months until the contracts are fully extinguished.”

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