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Commissioners fail to make decisions on asphalt plant

It was a night full of debate at last week’s county commission meeting. Lasting more than two hours, the board discussed several ongoing issues that drew a varied crowd of supporters and speakers from the audience. Possibly the biggest and most controversial subject of the meeting involved the ongoing construction of Appalachian Material’s asphalt plant adjacent to the Trade Volunteer Fire Department just off Highway 421.
With County Attorney Bill Cockett choosing to recuse himself because of a conflict of interest, the commission moved to hire an attorney last month to look into what legal options the county has in dealing with the proposed plant. There has been a strong community outcry against the development, with numerous concerns ranging from problems with pollution to the proximity of the site to the fire department. Eventually Johnson County Mayor Larry Potter was put in touch with environmental attorney Gary Davis, who conducted research on the issue and presented his recommendations to the planning commission at their meeting earlier in the month. 
Looking at the county’s private acts through the state, Davis identified a specific law, known as Chapter 29, which passed in 1997 that gives the planning commission authority to regulate excavation sites with grading in excess of two acres. These regulations include requirements for site plans, setbacks, storm water controls, and the establishment of buffer zones, among other things. Somewhat vague in its descriptions, the act calls for “appropriate measures” in most cases, and largely leaves the definitions of the requirements up to the planning commission.
Despite this fact, and the problem that the act has never been enforced since it was passed 16 years ago, Davis still felt it was a viable option for the county to consider. Realizing that there would be several items that would have to be discussed, the attorney explained that the county could issue a moratorium, which would stop work on the site for up to 60 days, giving the planning commission time to further explore the provisions of the law. Commissioner Jonathan Pleasant was chosen by the planning commission to present the moratorium issue to the full commission.
Pleasant explained that the planning commission did pass a motion five to two to recommend the moratorium, although there were concerns about its enforcement. With Davis absent from the full board meeting, Pleasant posed the moratorium question to Cockett, who could not provide an answer because he felt it would still be a part of his conflict of interest. Turning the issue over to the board, the floor was opened up for comments, beginning a very lengthy debate about what action, if any, to take.
Commissioner Jack Proffit was the first to speak up, expressing his concern that the county had little responsibility trying to stop an operation that the state has already permitted; going on to point out that Maymead maintains a similar plant just a few miles down the road. Profitt concluded by saying that he also had concerns about trying to limit anything that could bring potential jobs to the county.
Commissioner Rick Snyder had several points to make as well, focusing primarily on his concerns with the validity of the county’s private act, which he noted was “extremely insufficient.” With the potential for costly litigation looming over the issue, Snyder was worried about the vagueness of the act’s wording, its lack of definitions, the county’s lack of a permitting process, and the fact that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) has already given Appalachian Material’s a construction permit.
Snyder also brought up the fact that enforcement of these types of regulations can be very demanding and costly, leading many of the surrounding counties and cities to create dedicated codes enforcement departments with full time staff, which Johnson County does not currently have the funding to do. Going further, Snyder pointed out that even if the board was successful in enforcing the act in this particular situation, it would force the county to begin regulation on all such grading operations in the future. Snyder concluded by reiterating that, “I’m not saying let’s forget it, but if this had been implemented beforehand it would have been a different story.”
While both Snyder and Proffit expressed their empathy with the people of Trade, the real debate was whether it should remain a private issue taken up by the citizens or the responsibility of the county. Even Chairman Freddy Phipps admitted he had concerns with the Private Act, but still seemed supportive of taking a closer look, candidly noting that he was “getting tired of dealing with everything they don’t want in North Carolina.”
Several speakers from the audience came forward to address the commission, beginning with veterinarian Richard Cochrane, who lives near the proposed plant. Cochrane began by reviewing the history of the issue up to this point, noting in particular that TDEC has repeatedly stated that the county is the only body with authority to regulate based on the suitability of the site.
Cochrane was followed by Jay Jackson, another concerned citizen who admitted that there were litigation fears, but that he felt the people of Trade could raise money if the county would pursue the controversial issue. Other speakers included Watauga River Water Keeper Donna Lisenby who made an effort to point out the benefits of passing regulations not only for this situation but for issues in the future. Lisenby particularly noted that Johnson County has some of the most exceptional waters in the state making it a hotspot for trout fishermen, and that considering the county’s efforts to encourage tourism, it would be very detrimental to allow potential pollution to corrupt these streams.
Confirming her belief that the county does have responsibility for developments that have an adverse impact on the public good, Lisenby expressed her hope that the board would find the courage to tackle this problem, not only for the people of Trade but for the whole county. Environmental advocate Dennis Shekinah spoke up as well, agreeing with Lisenby that there would be consequences whether the county chose to fight the development or not and that he felt the board should take a stand for future problems as well.

To read the entire article, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.