The Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to enact a moratorium on all new category 1 high impact land uses, including asphalt plants, until July 31 — but it's unclear whether the moratorium applies to the Maymead project in Deep Gap.
The commissioners called the special meeting to review viable options for modifications to the 12-year-old High Impact Land Use Ordinance following a public hearing held June 16. Following a closed session, the commissioners said they had reached consensus on several ordinance changes in addition to those proposed by the county Planning Board, and thus another public hearing would be required. That public hearing will be held on July 7 during the commissioners' regular meeting.
Earlier in the meeting, Watauga Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman said a permit application for a second proposed asphalt plant on Rainbow Trail had been denied because it did not meet HILU ordinance requirements.
The moratorium applies to development approvals for "asphalt plants, cement mixing facilities and quarries/stone crushers, including any active applications or permits for which a vested right has not been established," according to the ordinance adopted by the commissioners Monday.
"The moratorium will allow needed consideration of the adequacy of that (HILU) ordinance, particularly as it applies to the permitted location of the specified uses," the moratorium ordinance stated.
The moratorium ordinance includes the finding that "the possibility of new application submittals for Category 1 high impact land uses prior to July 7, 2015, is an imminent and substantial threat to public health or safety" — which, under North Carolina law, allows local governments to enact moratoria without notice or public hearing.
But after the meeting, county attorney Stacy "Four" Eggers IV said the county is still investigating whether or not the asphalt plant project planned by Maymead Inc. has a "vested right."
Maymead plans to convert a rock crushing and recycling facility it is leasing at 5251 U.S. 421 South into a 300,000-ton-per-year asphalt plant. The property already holds a county HILU development permit for an asphalt plant that was issued in 2011 to the property owners, Johnny and Joan Hampton. However, Maymead has not yet received a state air quality permit or county building, grading or electrical permits for the project.
If the county determines Maymead does not have a vested right for development of the 421 asphalt plant, it will send a letter to Maymead to inform the company, Eggers said, and Maymead would have a 30-day period to appeal the determination to the county Board of Adjustment. Board of Adjustment decisions can then be appealed to Watauga County Superior Court.
Eggers said the county would consult with other legal experts on the matter, including staff from the UNC School of Government.
In addition to revisions proposed by the Watauga County Planning Board, commissioners reached consensus on additional buffers for Category 1 high impact land uses (including asphalt plants and rock recyclers), to include a 1,500-foot buffer from state-designated scenic byways and from the Blue Ridge Parkway. In addition, commissioners agreed to consider setbacks from residential properties between 500 and 1,500 feet.
The proposed changes to the HILU ordinance must be reduced to writing prior to the July 7 public hearing. If the commissioners wish to extend the moratorium beyond July 31, a separate public hearing would be required, Eggers said.
Preceding Monday's meeting was a protest outside the Watauga County Administration Building of about 100 people opposing the proposed asphalt plants in the county. A group called High Country WATCH and others opposing the project last week asked the commissioners to enact a six-month moratorium on all new asphalt plants in the county while considering ordinance revisions providing greater protections and more opportunities for public input.
WATCH organized as a chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in opposition to the proposed Maymead project. The pressure on the county increased when it was revealed that on June 15, an associated company of Radford Quarries had applied for a HILU development permit for an asphalt plant at an 8.5-acre tract on Rainbow Trail, just off of N.C. 194 in Boone.
"We reviewed that application thoroughly," Furman said. The HILU ordinance requires a 1,500-foot buffer from educational facilities, and the proposed plant site was within 1,500 feet of the county’s Gragg Education Center, he said. The crowd filling the commissioners' boardroom on Monday erupted in cheers and applause at the news that the permit had been denied.
D.J. Cecile, vice president of Radford Properties, did not respond to a June 17 call from Watauga Democrat seeking comment.
At Monday's meeting, Furman gave a brief overview of the history of the HILU ordinance and the proposed revisions developed by the Watauga County Planning Board over the past year. In proposing minimum buffers between certain high impact uses and residences, the board worked with county GIS to develop maps of areas that would be available for development under different buffer requirements, he explained.
“The 1,500-foot limit is tougher in Watauga County (than Ashe County) because we have less land area and a lot more residences," Furman said. “So with 1,500 feet you see there’s not much area remaining in the county. Then they looked at the 500-foot buffer, and that’s what they settled on.
"They really took a long, hard look at it. That’s how they came up with their recommendation," Furman added.
Watauga County Commission Chairman Jimmy Hodges, a Republican, then informed attendees of the commissioners' need to enter into a closed session discussion to consult with the county attorney "due to possible legal considerations that may proceed after modifications" to the ordinance.
But before entering closed session, Hodges issued a stern rebuke to those who have sent "some very nasty emails."
"This board has been accused of doing back room deals; we’ve been accused of taking kickbacks," Hodges said. "That’s highly and totally uncalled for, and I resent that very much. If you’re here tonight and you’re one of those that wrote those emails, shame on you.
"We’re all citizens of this county and we need to work together as a group … to get these issues resolved," he added. "We’re doing our very best to represent the people."
Commissioner Billy Kennedy, a Democrat, said he agreed with Hodges and that he has observed nothing in the past three years to suggest the county has avoided transparency.
"There’s been nothing that shouldn’t have been in closed session," Kennedy said. "We all are acting in good faith, as best I can tell."
High Country WATCH will hold a second community meeting on Tuesday, June 23, at 7 p.m. at the Watauga Humane Society shelter.
"No matter what the county commissioners decide, we will be in for a long battle," the group said on its Facebook page. The group's website is www.highcountrywatch.com.