The Guilford County Planning Board hearing concerning a proposed new rock quarry mining project near Pleasant Garden is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 13 – over a month away.
But that case is already one of the most high profile county Planning Board cases in recent history and it’s energizing people on both sides. It also has Guilford County staff and others reviewing zoning appeal rules to assure that the county handles the controversial granite mining case in the right way.
Texas-based Lehigh Hanson is a supplier of cement, concrete, asphalt and other building materials for construction projects in the US, Canada and Mexico. Hanson Aggregates Southeast LLC, a subsidiary of Lehigh Hanson, has submitted a rezoning request, as well as a request for a special-use permit, to Guilford County. The approval of both would allow rock blasting and granite mining in a 350-acre area in southeast Guilford County that was, in 2000, rezoned to be used as a clay mine for Boren Brick. That zoning, which is still in effect, designated the land “heavy industrial” but didn’t allow blasting – an added permission that Lehigh Hanson needs in order to extract rock from that site.
The rezoning case will go to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners if the Planning Board’s decision is appealed – and it’s a virtual certainty that it will be. An appeal of the special-use permit would be to Superior Court according to one attorney handling the case.
When the Planning Board and the Board of Commissioners hold quasi-judicial hearings, the boards play a role close to that of a court of law adjudicating matters, and the board members and commissioners aren’t supposed to make up their minds before the hearing. They are often warned about even discussing the cases before hearings of this type.
Opponents to Lehigh Hanson’s request to mine granite in the area have been gearing up for the fight in recent weeks – while advocates contend the blasting and added truck traffic would hardly be noticed by residents who live near the mine.
The project has been a very hot topic for county officials and their constituents this summer. Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad said he can’t even get away from the discussion when he attends church services on Sunday mornings.
“A lady came up to me in church and wanted to talk about it,” Conrad said. “I don’t think people understand the process. It will be a ‘quasi-judicial’ hearing, and, because of that, we can’t talk to people about it.”
Area citizens have launched a “No Quarry Here” internet campaign on Facebook and other social media platforms in an attempt to stop the project. Some residents spoke out at a Board of Commissioners meeting in July, and public meetings are being held to organize the fight against the move. Project opponents claim that the noise, danger and increased truck traffic will destroy the current tranquility of the area.
The group’s Facebook page states that the proposed mining operations would be “devastating” to the residents’ way of life and claims, “Not only will our day to day lives be affected, our land and ecosystem will be depleted!”
It also states, “We must stop this before it’s too late. This company will make billions off our community and leave it in ruins.”
Those fighting the move are being encouraged to contact government representatives – something that’s certainly happening to a great extent.
Attorney Tom Terrell of Smith Moore Leatherwood is representing Lehigh Hanson in the rezoning request, and he said this week that the case was originally to be heard by the Planning Board on Wednesday, August 9. However, he said, the meeting needed to be held in the commissioners meeting room on the second floor of the Old Guilford County Court House to accommodate the expected crowd, but that meeting room was being renovated at that time so the Lehigh Hanson case was pushed back to September.
According to Terrell, a lot of the fears voiced by mining opponents are unfounded. He said some of the postings on social media include “greatly exaggerated” claims, such as one that stated rock blasting will take place every day. Terrell said that, in reality, blasting will only happen two to four days a month. He added that the actual process is a lot tamer than many imagine.
“The blasting is very 21st century,” Terrell said. “It is very scientific and involves a very thick liquid, not dynamite. It just fractures a very thin sliver of rock, causing it to collapse.”
Terrell said the sound of those blasts is much less harsh than it was in mining operations decades ago.
He also said that, if the project is approved and completed, there will be an average of 143 additional trucks daily going in and out of the mine and, when that number is doubled for round trips and when fractional trips are included, the total comes to 287. He said that number of trucks isn’t expected to significantly delay traffic in the area.
Terrell also said that modern rock quarries do their business with minimal impact on the surrounding areas.
“Generally, people don’t know they are there,” he said.
Terrell told of one woman who spoke at a citizens’ meeting regarding the proposed project. The woman lived near an existing Guilford County quarry where blasting is already allowed, he said, and she told the group she was unaware of the mine’s existence until she just happened to stumble across it one day.
“She said she’d lived there for years and she just discovered it when she was on a hike,” Terrell said.
Terrell also said the closest residence to the granite mine proposed by Lehigh Hanson is 1,500 feet from the edge of the quarry, and he said that, in other parts of Guilford County, people peacefully live much closer than that to quarries.
Despite the claims from Terrell and other project advocates, opponents aren’t buying it.
“Folks, I usually don’t mix politics and business,” posted Anthony Smith on the Facebook page opposing the project. “But HANSON rock Quarry is trying to ruin my community. They want to build a 355 acre Quarry less than 2 miles from my house … This would destroy our roads [and] pollute the air, not to mention destroy 355 acres of farm land.”
He also questions whether claimed new jobs will be created.
“Greensboro, Winston Salem and Burlington have enough rock quarries to maintain the needs of our area and at the end of the process it may take 15-20 people to run the quarry and odds are they would transfer people from the quarries they already have in Roxboro or Durham, so don’t let the ‘it will create jobs propaganda fool you.’”
Guilford County Planning Director Leslie Bell said county planning officials and legal staff are working hard to make sure the case is handled correctly.
“We’re working with county officials to see what the interpretations are and make sure we are all on the same page,” Bell said.
Bell said he had been discussing the matter with Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, who, he added, had been consulting with the School of Government – a UNC-Chapel Hill based think-tank of experts that specializes in North Carolina law related to government. The School of Government is often used as a resource by city and county officials across the state as well as by the media.
“There’s no question at all about the rezoning request,” said Bell. “That would go to the commissioners.”
The concurrent request for a special-use permit for granite mining and that coming decision could be appealed to Guilford County Superior Court.
Bell said county staff had been studying the appeals process for the special-use permit under current state law.
Payne said this week he had not yet come to a conclusion on whether the appeal of a special-use permit would go to the courts or to the commissioners.
Terrell said that in one possible scenario the case could end up in the hands of the county commissioners and Superior Court simultaneously, with different aspects of the case being determined by those two bodies.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson knows a thing or two about the granite mining business. He runs a family-owned trucking company, Stout Trucking Inc., that does a lot of its business hauling rocks like the ones that would be taken out of the new granite mine should the project ultimately be approved.
Branson said there are five quarries in Guilford County that he’s familiar with and said all of those have blasting.
Branson said the case is likely to be appealed and added that he had discussed the matter with Payne. Branson said it was clear that he would have to stay out of the debate because of the conflict of interest created by his business.
“I’m probably not going to join in that forest,” Branson said. “We deliver rock and sand and our largest client is the concrete industry.”
He also said Stout Trucking does a lot of business with a Lehigh Hanson quarry in the Raleigh area. Branson said the rock taken from these mines is used in materials for highways, slabs under houses, building foundations and similar hard surfaces.
He said that, though he’ll stay out of the discussion, he has certainly been hearing a lot about it.
“I’m getting a tremendous amount of emails and letters about it as well as calls from local media outlets.”