Opponents of a proposed rock quarry mining and blasting operation near Pleasant Garden breathed a huge sigh of relief last week when the Guilford County commissioners voted not to allow mining there – but the matter could be appealed to Guilford County Superior Court.
If the board had approved the rezoning request at the commissioners Thursday, Nov. 2 meeting, and had followed that at a later meeting with approval of a special-use permit, Texas-based Lehigh Hanson would have had the green light to conduct rock blasting and mining on about 60 acres of a 350-acre area in southeast Guilford County near the corner of McClellan and Racine roads.
Heading into the meeting, hundreds of residents in the community were worried Lehigh Hanson would get that approval, but in the end the county commissioners voted 8 to 0 to deny the controversial rezoning request. The unanimous no vote from the board came despite a recommendation from planning department staff and from the Guilford County Planning Board, and despite the fact that the Board of Commissioners is run by five Republicans who like to be considered pro-business.
In 2000, the land was rezoned to be used as a clay mine for Boren Brick. That rezoning, which is still in effect, designated the land “heavy industrial.” However, that zoning limited operations to mining clay; it didn’t permit granite mining. A new rezoning to allow granite mining and a special-use permit to allow blasting are needed in order for any company to mine granite with rock blasting there, as Lehigh Hanson wants to do.
At the Nov. 2 public hearing on the matter before the commissioners’ vote, Attorney Tom Terrell of Smith Moore Leatherwood argued Lehigh Hanson’s case in favor of the rezoning request, and Chuck Winfree of Adams & Winfree led the citizen-based opposition.
Given the intense nature of the dispute – Lehigh Hanson considers the site very attractive for its business while the citizens are vehemently opposed to blast mining there – some speculated before the hearing that either side would appeal the decision if they lost. Now the victorious and celebrating area residents who fought the move have to wait and see if Lehigh Hanson takes the issue to court.
When the Rhino Times asked Terrell the day after the hearing if the company planned to appeal, he said, “We haven’t discussed it; you are the only person who has raised that issue.”
Winfree, who represented the residents in their fight against the quarry operations, said he didn’t know whether Lehigh Hanson intended to appeal, but he added that, given the unanimous vote of the Board of Commissioners, it would surprise him greatly if they decide to do so.
“I have not heard,” Winfree said of any appeal intentions by Lehigh Hanson. “I would be shocked if they did. It would be one thing if it was a 4-4 vote or the vote was split.”
Winfree said an appeal to Superior Court would face a heavy legal burden.
“They have to be able to show the commissioners had no rational basis for taking that position,” Winfree said.
He added that, if there is an appeal, Guilford County would be the defendant and the defense would be led by Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne.
Payne said a rezoning request of this nature can be appealed to the court system, and he added that rezoning appeals are a type of case Superior Court doesn’t see a lot.
“It’s an administrative review in front of a judge, so it’s something that’s rather different from what Superior Court judges are used to,” Payne said. “That judge is sitting and acting very much like a court of appeals does – which is an unusual position for that Superior Court judge to be in.”
Lehigh Hanson has 30 days to appeal from the time the company receives written notice of the decision from the county. The county planned to send out that notice this week. For now, the Nov. 2 decision greatly pleased about 250 opponents of the proposed blasting operation who stood and cheered and, later, during the recess that followed the vote, formed in a circle, held hands and prayed to give thanks to God. Several people who lived near the quarry site said they had done a great deal of praying beforehand too.
Lehigh Hanson is a supplier of aggregate, cement, concrete, asphalt and other building materials for construction projects in the US, Canada and Mexico. Hanson Aggregates Southeast, a subsidiary of Lehigh Hanson, had submitted the rezoning request to Guilford County as well as a request for the special-use permit.
At the Guilford County commissioners Nov. 2 meeting, each attorney had 20 minutes to make his case, five minutes for rebuttal, and, in a mirror-image of the Planning Board’s September hearing, each brought expert witnesses and plenty of illustrations.
At the meeting, Terrell began by asking the commissioners to follow the recommendation of their planning staff and planning board.
He also said the product mined from the quarry, “aggregate,” was necessary for building virtually any structure.
“I think we all know by now that aggregate is a primary component of asphalt and concrete,” he said. “We cannot grow as a community if we don’t have aggregate. If you build a hospital, a school, a road or a house, aggregate is a primary component.”
Terrell added that, “A great county also needs great businesses,” and said it was evident that Lehigh Hanson is a great business.
In the public hearing, Terrell introduced water experts who said the mining and blasting would not negatively affect well water quality or availability in the area, as well as traffic experts who said the added trucks on the roads wouldn’t be a danger.
Winfree had expert witnesses of his own who said the opposite. He also showed a video that included images of the community, pictures of the narrow roads and interviews with residents who live near the site of the proposed blasting and mining. Several commissioners, including Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, said later that they thought the video was highly effective in getting Winfree’s message across.
“The video was very compelling,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he tried to listen objectively to both sides in an attempt to reach the right decision, though he added that it was, of course, a judgment call.
“It’s not an exact science,” Phillips said.
The chairman said well water and traffic concerns were key to his decision given the nature of that area.
Phillips said that, while “worst case scenarios may not be likely on every front,” it remains a fact that risk exists.
“Obviously traffic was a big one,” Phillips said. “I think that’s very real. You have narrow roadways and potential congestion.”
Phillips said that congestion raised safety concerns, especially given the mix of vehicles: large trucks, tractors, farm equipment and school buses.
He also said some concessions proposed by Lehigh Hanson – such of creating additional turnoff lanes – may have helped matters somewhat but wouldn’t have been enough to address concerns completely.
The aesthetics of the area and potential noise from blasting were also important considerations for him, Phillips said.
The chairman said that while this is one type of development and the product from the quarry would be useful for county building projects, he said he also believes that, given the nature of the land, it may one day be a good place for residential development; and he feels citizens in that community would be much more accommodating to that type of development coming to the area.
Commissioner Alan Perdue, who was the head of Guilford County Emergency Services before retiring and being elected commissioner, said after the meeting that, during his many years in public safety, he got very familiar with quarries and their operations, and was at times in the position of overseeing blasting.
“I’m not an expert, but I do know quarries, ” Perdue said, adding that, like other commissioners, he wasn’t convinced the blasting would have no impact on well water in the area.
One resident who lives next to a Jamestown quarry, where blasting is permitted, brought in large rocks to the meeting and told commissioners a blast in that quarry sent the large rocks through his roof and into his yard. He held up the two large rocks for commissioners to see as he spoke.
Terrell responded that the odds of that happening were extremely small. Throughout the process, he has presented studies and expert testimony touting the safety of the modern blasting process.
The day after the commissioners’ decision, Terrell said he felt that, during the discussion, there was too much emphasis given to potential risks of the proposed project since there is some risk inherent in any development.
“Every business generates traffic and industry brings trucks,” he said. “And those trucks use the same roads as our school buses – everywhere,”
As events unfolded at the Nov. 2 meeting, it became more and more evident that the highly unpopular rezoning request was going to get shot down.
The pro-mining forces could have used the help of Commissioner Alan Branson, but before the public hearing on the question, Branson announced he had to recuse himself because he is in the trucking business. Branson, who runs Stout Trucking Inc., told those at the meeting, “I am very much involved in the trucking industry,” and he added that his company hauls rocks out of Lehigh Hanson quarries “on a regular basis.”
Before he left the dais, Branson said manage to work in several positive comments about the trucking industry and the importance of quarries.
“The trucking industry is a large employer and payer; we employ on the payroll typically 40 to 45 individuals throughout the year,” Branson said of his company that transports quarry product.
Winfree pointed out after the meeting that Branson was able to get in his vote of support in even though he didn’t get an official vote on the request.
Branson said after the meeting that if he’d had been able to vote he would have voted in favor of Lehigh Hanson.
His recusal left four Democrats and four Republicans. So it already wasn’t looking good: The Democratic commissioners tend to side with the residents in situations like this and a 4-4 tie on the Board of Commissioners means the zoning request fails.
Commissioner Justin Conrad is another Republican who was, going into the meeting, leaning toward approval, but who in the end voted no.
“I’ll tell you – I changed my vote,” Conrad said.
According to Conrad, there were too many questions and county staff gave him one answer in an email regarding water concerns and a different answer at the meeting.
At the Nov. 2 public hearing, Commissioner Hank Henning said, “All week I’ve battled this,” adding that water issues were a particular concern to him. Henning also said that county staff hadn’t done a good job of helping commissioners know which experts to listen to.
“My message to staff has been, ‘You have to help us,’” Henning said at the meeting. “It sounds like we are throwing caution to the wind a little bit. And if we approve this, there is no recourse; there is no walking it back. I don’t know. I’m not a hydro-geologist. We’ve got to do better with educating our board. But from what I’ve heard there are a whole lot of grey areas with this water conversation.”
At the meeting, there was a great deal of security. Also, just about every local media outlet had a reporter there. As with the Guilford County Planning Board meeting in September, about 300 people packed into the commissioners’ meeting room and onto the balcony, and there was an overflow room as well where others watched on closed circuit TV.