By Jesse Wood
A feeling of disbelief, perhaps, descended upon residents and parents of children living and attending school near the location of Maymead’s proposed asphalt plant in Deep Gap when they realized that even their representatives, the Watuaga County Board of Commissioners, may not be able to prevent the asphalt plant from moving into their backyard.
The setting of the Tuesday evening public hearing, where some 200 people came to oppose the asphalt plant, was the large courtroom in the Watauga County Courthouse.
During the two-hour public hearing on the proposed amendments to the county’s high impact land use ordinance, which regulates asphalt plants, more than two-dozen people made pleas to the commissioners to have another look at the ordinance and to enforce a moratorium on asphalt plants.
After the people spoke, Commissioner John Welch asked the attorney representing the county if Maymead’s proposed asphalt plant – and another proposed plant that was just announced at the Tuesday meeting – would be grandfathered in because its permit application occurred prior to any future moratorium the board might impose.
“That’s a very difficult question to answer. It brings up very difficult legal parameters,” Austin Eggers of Eggers, Eggers, Eggers and Eggers Law Firm said, adding that any answer would probably be better left for closed session.
Chair Jimmy Hodges then said that the issue would be taken up later in closed session on Tuesday night.
“We’ll hopefully get back to you (those in attendance) with some answers. We just don’t know when. It’s a lot more involved than saying, ‘Yes. We are going to do a moratorium,’” Hodges said. “There are a lot of legal aspects we have to abide by that the county attorney alluded to. So it’s not a real simple thing to handle.”
This past week, Maymead submitted its application with the Division of Air Quality, which is under the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, for an asphalt plant at 5251 U.S. 421 South. Earlier this year, Maymead President Wiley Roark signed a lease agreement for 4.341 acres where the J.W. Hampton Company rock crusher and recycling yard is located.
If the asphalt plant is built, Maymead Inc., which is based out of Tennessee, will use the plant to assist the U.S. 221 widening project, which is primarily in Ashe County. (Maymead currently has an asphalt plant in Boone on N.C. 105 and another one in Jefferson (Ashe County), which is located at one end of the U.S. 221 widening project.
The eight-year lease agreement, which features an option for five additional years, grants Roark first refusal rights to purchase a total of more than 104 acres along the Deep Gap gateway corridor, the latter of which concerned some of the residents greatly.
As the non-regulatory vision document for the Deep Gap Gateway that was recently drafted states, “All aspects of planning should reflect the quality of life theme.”
“There is nothing from [Maymead] transforming our scenic byway into 104 acres of toxic cancer. As a whole this doesn’t favor children. This must change,” Chip Williams said at the public hearing.
Much of the concerns expressed at the public hearing revolved around health and the quality of life of children in the area of the proposed plant if the plant is approved, built and operated.
High Country W.A.T.C.H., a group that formed in opposition to the plant, noted that two schools featuring about 700 students exist within a 1.5-mile radius of the proposed plant – in addition to a four-mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, seven miles of the South Fork of the New River, 10.5 miles of streams, eight churches, the Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park and numerous residences and organic farms.
Jessica Stetter, who lives in the Triplett community and whose two children also spoke at the public hearing, talked about her children and all of those that attend Parkway School and Two Rivers Community School breathing in toxic air all day long.
“I represent the voice of all the children here today and those who couldn’t be here,” Stetter said.
With controls in place, the proposed plant is estimated to emit 5.6 tons of particulate matter per year, 16.71 tons of sulfur dioxide per year, 8.88 tons of nitrogen oxide per year, 20.04 tons of carbon monoxide per year and 7.23 tons of volatile organic compounds per year, according to the permit submitted to the Division of Air Quality on Monday. The plant will also emit 1.54 tons of hazardous air pollutants, including 0.48 tons of formaldehyde.
At the public hearing, Liz Riddick said, “I have just the facts. Fact: Asphalt plants emit cancer-causing emissions. Fact: Two elementary schools are very close to the facility. Fact: Your job as county commissioners is to protect constituents.”
Mike McKey, a professor of economics at Appalachian State University, took another angle when speaking before the commissioners. McKey, who said he’s completed studies on how mining plants and cement plants effect the local economy, said that the value of property within the “airshed” of the plant is going to drop and that means that the county will lose property tax revenue.
“Ask the question: Is it going to help the county or harm the county?” McKey said.
The commissioners didn’t vote on the proposed amendments to the high impact land use ordinance, which – as it stands currently in draft form – would institute a 500-foot buffer between any residential dwelling and asphalt plants, cement mixing facilities and quarries/stone crushers – a distance that those in attendance felt was unacceptable.
A review of the ordinance and the proposed amendments came about after the N.C. General Assembly passed a law eliminating the Town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) last year. (Currently, the town still controls the ETJ as the municipality and the state are entangled in a lawsuit that hasn’t been settled. The next hearing in this case is set for early July.)
Following that legislation, citizens of the ETJ appeared before the commissioners asking for residential buffer zones from polluting businesses because town regulations would be thrown out of the window if Watauga County took control of the ETJ. Citizens were asking for a two-year moratorium on polluting industries operating in the ETJ and at least a 1,000-foot buffer between polluting industries and residential dwellings.
This all happened before Maymead’s plans became public knowledge.
On Tuesday night, many of the citizens that spoke and members of High Country W.A.T.C.H. were calling for a moratorium on polluting industries and for the commissioners to send the ordinance back to the planning board. As mentioned earlier, a brief discussion of a potential moratorium ensued, but on the advice of the county attorney, they held off on further discussions until closed session.
“I feel for all of you and I understand. We’re just looking for ways to make this better,” Commissioner Billy Kennedy said after the public hearing.
The Division of Air Quality announced on Monday that it will hold a public hearing on Maymead’s permit application because of the level of interest – even though it is unusual and not required for a public hearing to be held. A date, time and location has yet to be decided.
However, the Division of Air Quality permitting process is to ensure that facilities do not violate state and federal air quality standards.
“DAQ has no authority over the location of facilities, truck traffic, noise, proximity to schools or neighborhoods, and other land use issues. If citizen are concerned about zoning or land-use issues, they should contact local government officials,” DAQ spokesman Tom Mather said in an email on Monday.