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LETTERS / HILO Notification Without Setbacks is Just a Dog and Pony Show

Dear Editor, Watauga County residents and Commissioners:

I continued my education at the Watauga County Commissioners meeting Tuesday, July 21, and those of you who weren’t there, you missed a show. I witnessed the less desirable aspects of the political process in action and the interests of the few outweighing the concerns of the many. I saw a lot. I got an education and I feel the need to tell you about it.

Let me begin with the idea of progress. We often think of progress as technological or economic. 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. Such as progress over women’s rights, racial equality, and worker’s rights. It is becoming commonplace in our democracy that the interests of the few, namely the corporate, the monied, or the economic are trumping the concerns and interests of the rest of the population. In these land use situations, such as what is going on here in Watauga County, when we can value the interests of the common landowner and resident in a balanced way with those of industry and business, we can call that progress. You need to decide if the following actions undertaken by the commissioners count as progress or business as usual.

Up until this meeting, while being disappointed with the resulting 750 foot setback for Asphalt plants, the commissioners and citizens have engaged in a lively debate. Meetings have been held with respect and adherence to procedures. They have been fair. The commissioners have shown a willingness to listen and have seemed to genuinely encourage citizens to stay involved in this civic process.

At this meeting the Commissioners were to hold a public hearing to discuss instituting a moratorium on Category 2 and 3 High Impact Land Use industries and facilities. What that basically means is that the county would halt granting permits for 60 days, to industries/facilities such as propane and gasoline bulk storage, chip mills, electricity generating facilities, junk/scrap/auto graveyards, electric substations, recycling facilities, and solar power farms. All industries that have impacts that go well beyond the borders of their respective property lines. Impacts that matter to people living near by and to the county at large. If the moratorium was adopted they would have 60 days to examine the current ordinances that are in place to regulate these facilities.

Basically, right now there is a 100 foot setback buffer in place between residences and any of the above facilities. 100 feet. To put that in context, the surrounding counties of Ashe, Wilkes, and Alleghany have setbacks of 1,000 and 2,000 feet. (Also, the decision to set the setback of Category 1 facilities to 750 feet, such as the 421 Asphalt plant, is the lowest of these 4 counties, including Watauga.) So again, Watauga is last. Why? Take a look at those industries and tell me why they don’t deserve bigger setbacks. 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?

Citizens also voiced their desire to have a process of public hearing, public debate, and/or public notification when a permit is requested for any of the above facilities. It seems reasonable that every citizen should have the opportunity to know what is happening in their county. If we are to truly value individual landowner rights and their ownership of property, they should be notified and given the opportunity to comment, especially when it comes to land use practices that can negatively effect their health, quality of life, and property value. Is this issue also not one that should be, at the least, further discussed and investigated to see how it may benefit the county and its residents?

This issue of further discussion and investigation is just what the moratorium would provide. It would give the county an opportunity to really dig in and take a look at these issues that genuinely effect landowners, residents, and businesses in the county. I stated, that even at the end of the 60 day moratorium, if we didn’t even change one ordinance, we would have engaged in a process that included the community and offered opportunities for debate and idea sharing. We would have engaged the democratic process, and again, even if we disagreed with the outcome, we would be celebrating a genuine process.

I am currently not celebrating. And I am writing this to see how you feel.

The County Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to NOT enact the moratorium. But the vote does not tell the whole story. What the commissioners did…….no, what 3 commissioners did, should be more fully examined and brought to light.

(From this point forward, for the sake of readability, but still with due respect, I will refer to the commissioners by their last names. I will also be paraphrasing and summarizing and state ahead of time that these are my recollections and impressions)

Kennedy proposed to vote on the 60 day moratorium, stating more work could and should be done, Welch seconded the motion. Then Hodges proceeded to state that the main concern seeming to be expressed was the issue of having public input over permitting these facilities. He talked for a bit on that, how having in the ordinance a process for public hearing/debate/notification would solve the issue. Now pay attention here: Yates then proceeded to support Hodges with talking about how public input really does seem to be the citizen’s concern and that should take care of these issues. Kennedy raised the issue that setbacks are also a BIG concern, and a moratorium is in order, but Hodges seemed to brush that aside and Yates basically said why don’t we do the public input piece and then see how this all shakes out(don’t forget that, I’ll bring that up again shortly.) Blust helped shoot some holes in the setback issue by asking/stating to Mr. Furman that we’ve been looking at this since 2002 (as though time on an issue, even if that time does not result in something the community feels good about, is a satisfactory reason for being ‘done’ with that issue) , but Furman gave the impression to myself and others, that it has been MUCH more recent since taking a look at these issues. So Blust just really served as distraction from this issue of setbacks.

So, I hope I made it clear and you payed attention: Citizens raise issue of setbacks AND public hearings/debates/input….Commissioners give old fashioned bait and switch…see, look, yes……public debate/input…that’s the solution….yea…..don’t need moratorium….don’t need to take a closer look….we’ve already looked at setbacks for eons…..yea….give them the bone….they’ll go back from where they came from.

Now, I may be being harsh, but……

1. Anyone paying attention knows that if an industry is looking to locate here and obtain a permit, if they fullfill the requirements, they get the permit. So, even if you have public hearings, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything can be done to stop or ammend that process. So basically, without appropriate setbacks, public notification/debate/hearing/input is potentially just a dog and pony show, unless of course the county wants to enter perpetual law suits, defending continual ordinance changes requested by the disgruntled public against businesses trying to set up shop here. Or, is it just a gesture to the community that maintains business as usual? Is that progress?

2. The planning board has stated that the doors are NOT being beaten down, that not many permits of High Impact Land Use have been requested. So, again, why not have a moratorium, that gives time to more fully examine these issues, especially when a) it’s only for 60 days and b) there just aren’t many permit requests that will be delayed, since there aren’t that many requests to begin with. Why not engage the process of discussion and investigation in a manner that allows us to look deeply at the issues, issues that effect all landowners, all residents, and the whole community of Watauga.

3.When it is stated that we should have the public hearing/debate aspect in the ordinance and then see how things shake out, they are forgetting that is in fact WHY we are engaged in this process currently. Because there are NOT good setbacks is the very reason these issues with asphalt plants and high impact facilities have come up. As stated earlier, public hearing/input does NOT fix or even address the issue of setbacks. How is that an answer? It isn’t. Letting things shake out is poor planning and wastes more of the commissioners and citizen’s time in the future. It’s business as usual. Sorry. It’s for you to decide: Is that progress?

4.The commissioners have been encouraging and positive about the input and participation of the community over these high impact land use issues. So, to see them shoot down the moratorium process, in the manner that they did, leaves me with a ‘not-so-good’ feeling. Do they really want participation, genuine debate? Or do they want it only up until a point that may push them into examining their own ideas and vision for the county? Or a point that really goes against their ideas and vision for the county? Or maybe there are other reasons that they could share with us. Either way I want to hold the space for this County’s Commissioners to not just be politicians, but individuals of ideas and vision. But I also want to hold the space for an open and honest exchange of those ideas and vision, and not the bait and switch, and political speak I witnessed at the meeting. Call me a dreamer for dreaming of a process that is founded on openness and honesty, and rooted in basic common sense. I will continue, with others to dream that dream.

In closing: It was stated at an earlier meeting over the asphalt issue by one of the commissioners, that none of this is political. I don’t know about that, but it does seem ideological. To scuttle the process that allows the community and the commissioners and the planning board to discuss and investigate an issue that a large number of the community feels is important; to scrap it in the way that was done at this meeting seems to imply that Watauga is at a crossroads. A crossroads of ideology, of vision for the county. It seems that some of the commissioners have reasons to place a higher priority on the interests of individual landowners who may operate high impact facilities; the few, over those of the majority of the county.

Basically, I witnessed the interests of the few trump the interest of the many. Combine that with the fact that 3 surrounding counties ALL combine their high impact facilities into one category and ALL of them offer more protection to their citizens. Now, is that progress for Watauga? Or is that business as usual? What are you willing to settle for? What’s your vision for the county? Do you think we can protect the interests of individual land owners and residents and have responsible business growth? Maybe you should write/call those commissioners and ask them what their vision is and maybe you might want to come out to the next meeting. It’s always educational and it’s ALWAYS about ALL of US.

Thank you.

David Stetter

Deep Gap