By Jesse Wood
On Tuesday evening, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners in a 3-2 vote declined to enact a 60-day moratorium on all high impact land uses in the county.
High Country W.A.T.C.H., a group of concerned citizens that formed in opposition to the proposed asphalt plant on U.S. 421 in Deep Gap, had requested the moratorium, so the county to could further review the county’s ordinance that regulates high impact land uses.
In the past couple months, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners have made several changes to the ordinance due to the public outcry that spawned after two new asphalt plants were proposed.
They created 750-foot buffers between residential property lines and Category 1 uses (asphalt plants, cement mixing facilities and rock quarries) and also a 1,500 foot buffer from those uses and NCDOT-designated scenic highways, such as U.S. 421 in Deep Gap, where Maymead wants to operate asphalt plant.
More recently on Monday during a meeting with the planning board, the commissioners voted to put chemical manufacturing and storage and explosives manufacturing uses into Category 1, so these industries would have buffers between residential dwellings. A required public hearing is scheduled on Aug. 4 in order for the commissioners to amend the ordinance to include those three uses into Category 1.
Other uses in the high impact land use ordinance:
Category 2: Automotive Graveyards, Propane or Gasoline Bulk Storage Facilities, Chemical Manufacturing, Chemical Storage Facilities, Chip Mills, Electricity Generating Facilities (excluding Wind and Solar Power Farms), Explosives Manufacturing, Junk/Scrap Yards.
Category 3: Fuel Oil Bulk Storage Facilities, Electric Substations, Commercial/Industrial Development with aggregate building footprint 50,000 square feet or greater, Recycling Facilities and Solar Power Farms. (Wind Power Farms are regulated under separate county ordinance.)
On Tuesday, High Country W.A.T.C.H. requested a 60-day moratorium on Category 2 and 3 uses. Currently, there is still a moratorium on asphalt plants that will expire by the end of the month.
While several citizens spoke in favor of a moratorium, larger buffers and more restrictions on high impact land uses in Watauga County, particularly nearby residential dwellings, no one spoke in opposition to moratoriums or larger buffers or more restrictions.
Because uses in Categories 2 and 3 don’t have residential buffers, residents are concerned that these uses could move in next door and they would have no say in the matter. Residents also noted concern that if a moratorium wasn’t adopted then chemical manufacturing, chemical storage facilities and explosives manufacturing uses could be grandfathered in while the commissioners wait to hold a public hearing.
Democrat Commissioners Billy Kennedy essentially started off the discussion after a public hearing, which was held to hear how the community felt about a moratorium on Category 2 and 3 uses.
Kennedy said that after hearing from the people, he wanted a 60-day moratorium on the Category 2 and 3 uses for the planning board to have more time to review the ordinance; notification sent to adjacent property owners about a public hearing if an application for a high impact land use permit is submitted; and additional setbacks to waterways and residential dwellings.
Commission John Welch agreed with Kennedy.
“We don’t need a perpetual moratorium, but we do need to get it right this time,” Welch said.
But the Republican commissioners – Perry Yates, David Blust and Jimmy Hodges – were steadfast in not issuing any more moratoriums. This comes after the commissioners enacted one moratorium earlier this year for Category 1 uses in order to schedule a public hearing to modify the high impact land use ordinance.
“We can do moratorium after moratorium, but I don’t see what’s accomplished by all of these moratoriums,” Hodges said on Tuesday. “We need to get this fixed now on what we want in this county and what the people want and put this to bed.”
At Monday’s joint meeting with the planning board, Hodges said, “If we start putting moratoriums on everything, it hurts are credibility with the powers that be.”
Commissioner Perry Yates said, “We don’t know how it’s going to work until we see how it’s going to work … We can’t keep passing moratoriums.”
Blust noted that the board already discussed the Category 2 and 3 uses at the joint meeting with the planning board the night before and decided to move three uses – chemical storage and manufacturing and explosives manufacturing – into Category 1.
Yates, Blust and Hodges, however, did agree that the public should be notified if a high impact land use permit application is applied for.
“That will resolve all of our problems and misunderstanding,” Hodges said.
Yates noted that he was “not happy” with the waterway and trout stream protections in the ordinance but said, “We ‘ve got to start somewhere and this is a lot better than what we have.”
In past meetings, members of the public have expressed shock that an asphalt plant permit was granted in 2011 and the public didn’t know about it. This permit, which has since been revoked, was part of Maymead’s proposal on U.S. 421 in Deep Gap.
More than one homeowner said they wouldn’t have bought property in Deep Gap in the past couple years if they knew an asphalt plant was going to be built in the area.
During a separate public comment period at the very end of the meeting, three people, who were requesting more restrictive measures for high impact land uses in the county, spoke before the commissioners again. One was David Stetter.
Stetter spoke about how people throw the word “progress” around whenever it pertains to business and development, for two examples. He wondered why it isn’t considered progress whenever someone stands up for common homeowners and he also wondered who the “powers at be” were.
In a letter to the editor on Wednesday morning, Stetter expanded on his comments.
“Progress is also made when we more fully look out for the interests of the community as a whole, and not show bias towards the interests of the few,” Stetter wrote.
Stetter also described the commissioners decision to vote for public hearings before permit approvals but not a moratorium for further review of all of the high impact land uses as a “dog and pony show.” He mentioned that the “need” was setbacks and moratoriums, but the “want” was a public hearing.
“Setbacks that would help to preserve the health, the quality of life and the property values of folks living near them. Don’t those facilities and the setbacks associated with them, at the least, require a genuine discussion and investigation to see what is in the highest good for all citizens and the county as a whole?” Stetter asked.
On Tuesday, Aug. 4, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing in order to vote on requiring public hearings for any high impact land use application and to move three uses into the more restrictive Category 1.
The commissioners thanked the planning board for its help in spending the past 10 months combing through the high impact land use ordinance. The commissioners directed the planning board to review the ordinance after the N.C. General Assembly passed a law eliminating the Town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction ETJ, which had stricter regulations or protections – depending on who you talk to.
The ETJ is still in the town’s control while a lawsuit between the state and town continues in court.