Board of Commissioners issues final ruling on controversial proposal to rezone 495 acres
Craig Justus stood before the Yadkin County Board of Commissioners with the full force of a community behind him. “Tonight is a very important decision. I would consider this as a legacy vote,” Justus, an attorney representing opponents of a proposed granite mine, said. “The decision will affect this county, affect your life time, your grandchildren’s life time – a long time.”
In the nine months since a mysterious company began poking deep holes in 495 acres of prime farmland in Hamptonville, a small town in the western section of the county, a scrappy crew of grassroots organizers had laid the groundwork for this moment.
Even before Jack Mitchell, who arrived in North Carolina via mining interests in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Texas, formed Three Oaks Quarry LLC, even before he publicly announced plans to mine granite on property belonging to a former state legislator, Wilma Sherrill, concerned residents understood they were up against moneyed and powerful interests.
So they spoke before the school board. They spoke before the Board of Adjustment. They sold T-shirts, and hosted a gun raffle to raise money for their legal fees. They held strategy meetings, including an event that brought 300 people out on a midsummer’s night to West Yadkin County Elementary School, which would lie just 1,500 feet from the mine, should it be built.
The pit itself would be 50 acres, about the size of downtown Yadkinville, and 180 feet deep, enough room to fit an 18-story building inside. There would be interior roads and overburden areas, a small town of workers extracting granite from the jaws of the earth.
After the Planning Board voted 3-2 last month to recommend the property be rezoned to make way for the mine, the community reeled – temporarily. “It’s not over,” Danny Steelman, whose property would abut the mine, said at the time.
On this night, the fruits of all of the community’s work rested with four county commissioners – a fifth had to recuse himself because he owns property adjacent to the proposed mine – who would decide whether to rezone the land. It would be the last local obstacle for the mine before heading to the state, which has rarely denied a mining permit in a half-century.
“It’s in your hands,” Justus told the commissioners.
For the next two hours, each side had its turn. On the pro-mine side, a couple of Yadkin County folks vouched for the project: a worker for another mining company, Vulcan, as well a man whose construction office is next to a Martin Marietta operation. They attested that mines are benign, good neighbors, even.
The opponents: the other 150 people packed into the room. They were concerned about the potential damage to their drinking water wells from the pumping of the mine. The traffic, the proximity to the school and homes. The upheaval of their rural way of life, in a county where families go back five generations or more, where people know every crease and fold in these foothills.
So when the mining company’s attorney, Tom Terrell, told the commissioners, “Ask yourself who do you listen to?” that was likely not the best legal strategy. “I want to tell you there are many voices,” Terrell went on. “The owners and sellers of property,” – neither of whom live in Yadkin County – “the forces of the market.”
“Listen to yourselves, listen to established county policies and past actions, listen to experts, listen to your staff and planning board.” Terrell advised them to listen to the neighbors, too. But their voices would presumably be lost in the din of the other interests.
The farmland, owned by the Sherrills, has been for sale for six years, with only one potential buyer, who briefly considered turning it into an industrial park. “No local residents have offered to buy it,” Terrell said. (Few folks in Yadkin County have millions of dollars to buy 490 acres.)
A mine aligns with the county’s land use plan, Terrell argued, which allows mineral extraction, airports, even sewer plants in these zoning jurisdictions.
And if that didn’t convince the commissioners, Three Oaks Quarry was sweetening the deal with concessions – although some community members would consider them bribes.
“Fourteen pages, single-spaced, 45 paragraphs” of conditions, Terrell said, including guarantees on structural integrity of home and drinking water wells and property values. The company would pay for a turn lane on US 21, to assuage traffic concerns. Greater setbacks from homes. A prohibition on trucks entering the site in the mornings on school days, plus an estimated $100,000 yearly donation to the school system. (As for the latter, Tim Parks, a school board member who opposes the mine, told commissioners, “We have not voted to accept that money.”)
Meanwhile, Justus kept scribbling on his legal pad.
Where mines go, asphalt plants often follow, Justus told the commissioners. “Because what happens is as soon as you allow this gigantic industrial piece of property to exist, that opens the door for memories to fade,” he said. “And for them to show up and say what’s wrong with an asphalt plant in the middle of a quarry?
(Terrell rebutted “that’s not on the table today,” without offering any assurances for the future.)
Also, a recent groundwater report showed the zone of influence – the area where water levels could drop because of mine pumping – was “larger than previously thought,” potentially affected more wells. The mine would violate watershed requirements because it would include too much impervious surface – pavement, concrete, any material that doesn’t absorb water.
And Justus made an arcane, at least to someone not well-versed in zoning law, but important point. Three Oaks must build an access road from US 21 to the mine. And that access road, which runs through land that is zoned agricultural would also have to be rezoned. But there’s a hitch: The road is within 500 feet of homes, too close to mining property to qualify for rezoning, as dictated by Yadkin County ordinance.
Ah, but Three Oaks had a work around: The company would give the road to the state Department of Transportation, effectively using the agency as a shield.
But DOT was unaware such a deal was in the works, according to an email Justus presented at the meeting.
“Yes the land use plan allows a mine,” Justus said. “But at the commission’s discretion – it’s not a blank check.”
He gestured toward the crowd. “These people out here are part of your planning documents. These are people that care about the development of your community. These are the folks that live and breathe here. These people will suffer if you decide for the quarry.”
For an interminable three minutes, Commission Vice Chair David Moxley read his motion aloud. The mine would be incompatible with the character, scope and intensity of the neighborhood. It is at cross-purposes with farmland preservation goals. The commissioners voted unanimously, 4-0 against the rezone. There would be no mine.
Community members clapped and cried. Terrell and Mitchell quietly conferred, engulfed in a maelstrom of hugging and hollering.
Outside, people dispersed into the mist left by a rainstorm. They sang, “na na na na, hey, hey, hey, good bye.”
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