The Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve increased setbacks from Category I high impact uses, including a 750-foot buffer from residential property lines and a 1,500-foot buffer from scenic byways and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The commissioners voted to enact the changes following a public hearing on proposed changes to the High Impact Land Use Ordinance and a closed session discussion. Commissioner John Welch cast the no vote on the motion, stating he felt the protections should have gone further.
"I heard several things brought up today. All of them are a great concern," Commissioner Perry Yates said. "We can’t sit here and say these kinds of businesses can’t come into Watauga County. Hopefully both sides can come out of this with an agreement."
Previously, the HILU Ordinance required Category 1 high impact uses (asphalt plants, cement mixing facilities and quarries/stone crushers) to have a 1,500-foot buffer from educational facilities. The amendments enacted Tuesday also included a 1,500-foot buffer from religious facilities and public recreation lands, which were recommended by the Watauga County Planning Board.
Maymead representatives, business owners, asphalt plant opponents and concerned citizens spoke during the hearing. Maymead Inc. — whose HILU permit for a new U.S. 421 asphalt plant was recently revoked — requested 20 minutes of the public hearing to present information, as did members of High Country WATCH (Wataugans Against Toxins Close to Home), the group formed in opposition to Maymead’s project.
Attorney Tom Terrell of the Greensboro-based law firm Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP spoke on behalf of Maymead, which has plans for a 300,000-ton-per-year asphalt plant at 5251 U.S. 421 South near Deep Gap and is appealing the county's revocation of a development permit for the property.
The attorney said the proposed plant would be located 800 feet from U.S. 421 — on the Doc and Merle Watson Scenic Highway. That would fall within the 1,500-foot buffer from scenic byways enacted on Tuesday.
Terrell said the potential negative impacts of asphalt plants have been greatly exaggerated by critics.
“The EPA de-listed asphalt plants as a major source of air pollution in 2002,” Terrell said. “You are not going to hear that from people who are getting their information from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.”
The volatile organic compounds emitted by vehicles passing by on U.S. 421 would greatly exceed those emitted by the proposed plant, he said. And a study found that a plant producing 200,000 tons of asphalt per year would emit the same amount of VOCs annually as two residential fireplaces, 35 lawnmowers, three gas stations and five fast food restaurants, he said.
Those figures are similar to a 2000 study by the former environmental, health and safety consulting firm Clayton Group Services, referenced on the Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association's website. However, that page states the study was based on a 100,000-ton-per-year plant. Terrell did not immediately respond to an email asking for the specific study he cited.
Terrell said the plant's electric needs would be "100 percent solar generated" and that the plant's heater would operate on natural gas, which emits much less sulfur dioxide than fuel oil. He said asphalt is 100 percent recyclable and not soluble in water.
In response to critics' question, "Don't we have enough asphalt plants?" Terrell said, "This is not a question that our government decides. We have a market-based, capitalistic economy that’s not government controlled.”
Commissioner Billy Kennedy later responded to that comment, arguing that unregulated free market capitalism can be very harmful.
“We do have a responsibility here as the government to try to protect the resources and our citizens as well," Kennedy said. "We’re not in the Wild West anymore.”
Also speaking on behalf of Maymead was the company's Area Manager Mary Katherine Harbin, who shared photos of her young children at her office to show she is confident that exposure to asphalt plants is not harmful.
"We don’t issue gas masks. We don’t issue breathing equipment (to employees)," she added. "The industry, OSHA (and the) EPA has made that decision. It is not necessary."
HCWATCH representatives and about a dozen others repeated calls for adoption of the proposed HILU amendments, including a 1,500-foot buffer from residences. They also urged the county to enact an additional amendment requiring public notice and public hearings before high impact permits are adopted and to extend the current moratorium on high impact projects for one year to provide time for environmental studies.
HCWATCH members said that counties surrounding Watauga (which has no countywide zoning districts) have zoning regulations and greater protections from high impact uses, such as larger setbacks. As a result, Watauga could become attractive to polluting industries, they said.
“Our county is up for grabs. It’s wide open for … potentially harmful development,” Chip Williams said. “Our setbacks are the most lenient in the five-county region.”
“We don’t want to be the dumping ground of Western North Carolina,” added Genevieve Mente.
Those seeking greater HILU protections also expressed skepticism about Terrell's assertions.
“Don’t be persuaded by the arguments that Maymead has made that asphalt is safe," HCWATCH member and farmer Susie Winters said. "Just remember what the cigarette makers told you about their products.”
Attorney Josh Teague urged the commissioners to consider public health and welfare and also challenged Maymead's claims about the safety of its workers. Teague read statements from the OSHA website about the potential effects from occupational exposure to asphalt, including headache, skin rash, fatigue, reduced appetite, throat and eye irritation, cough and skin cancer. OSHA is conducting further testing to determine safe levels of exposure, he said.
"This industry doesn’t provide breathing apparatuses because they have not yet been required to do so," Teague said.
Johnny Hampton is the owner of the U.S. 421 South property being leased to Maymead, and his family owns the grading and excavating company J.W. Hampton. Hampton said he simply wants to be treated equally.
“Probably the largest polluter in Watauga County is ASU; they burn natural gas,” he said. “Everybody is fine with what they puff out their smokestack … a small percentage of that would be related to what an asphalt plant would do.” Hampton, almost 70 years old, added that he has worked amongst asphalt all of his life without impacts to his health.
Some discussion centered around measuring the residential setbacks from the home footprint or the property line. The planning board had recommended a 500-foot buffer from residential footprints, but the commissioners ultimately went with the 750-foot buffer from residential property lines.
As for public hearings on HILU permits, County Attorney Four Eggers said that a special use or conditional use permit process would be required, and the law limits the kind of public input that can be accepted related to such permit applications. Typically, if a project meets all requirements, a permit is required to be issued, he explained.
The commissioners did not take action on additional public notice or input measures and did not vote to extend the current moratorium on Category 1 high impact uses. However, following a second closed session, the commissioners voted to schedule a public hearing on July 21 to consider a moratorium on Category II and III high impact uses for a maximum of 60 days. Category II and III uses include propane or gasoline storage facilities, chemical manufacturing, chemical storage facilities, chip mills, electricity generating facilities and explosives manufacturing.
"We’re not finished working on this. We are going to be revisiting this with the planning board," Yates said. "We don’t want you to think we’re going to stop after this morning."