Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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Graham, NC 27253
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County commissioners postpone decision on tougher spacing rules for heavy industry

A veritable ping pong game over land use in Snow Camp became tangled in the figurative net this week as the county’s governing board recoiled from some proposed changes to the rules for heavy industries outside the county’s cities and towns.

In particular, the board of commissioners has decided not to take immediate action on a recommendation from the county’s planning board to increase an existing “land spacing” requirement for certain, particularly intense industries from 1,200 to 1,500 feet.

This proposal, which came before the commissioners on Monday, was part of a broader package of tweaks that the planning board has proposed to the county’s ordinance for heavy industrial development. The commissioners ultimately signed off on some of the planning board’s more minor suggestions during Monday’s proceedings. They nevertheless put off their vote on the 1,500-foot land spacing limit, which is itself a watered-down version to a more restrictive 2,000-foot zone of separation that a subcommittee of the planning board had previously floated.

The commissioners declined to tackle the land-spacing conundrum on Monday despite pleas from several Snow Camp residents who favored a stricter requirement. Most of these residents also blasted the planning board’s recent decision to nix the proposed zoning plan for Snow Camp, and they appealed to the commissioners to approve a 2,000-foot spacing requirement as something of a consolation for their community.

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John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, seemed to capture the prevailing mood of his board when he responded to the pleas which these residents raised during a public hearing on Monday.

“I don’t want us to go through every meeting discussing zoning,” Paisley decried after a public hearing on the proposed changes to the heavy industrial development ordinance. “That ox has already been gored, and I don’t think we need to revisit it at this time.”

 

Full circle
The back-and-forth over this land spacing rule is merely the latest in a series of land-use controversies that have gripped the county since 2018, when an out-of-state company managed to get the county’s planning department to sign off on a stone quarry in Snow Camp. This county-level permit, which was issued without the knowledge of neighbors or the county’s elected officials, ultimately paved the way for this project’s acceptance by the state mining commission.

Although the board of commissioners was unable to prevent the quarry’s state-level approval, they did make a number of other concessions to the mine’s critics in Snow Camp. Among other things, the commissioners strengthened the notification requirements for proposed heavy industries. They also tasked the planning board with tightening the county’s existing rules for industrial development, and they initially gave the county’s planning department the all-clear to draft a zoning plan for Snow Camp that could potentially serve as a template for other unincorporated parts of the county.

In response to its charge from the commissioners, the county’s planning board has devised a three-tiered classification system for new industries – which reserves the highest “Class III” designation for more intense operations such as stone quarries, sawmills, asphalt plants, and recycling centers. The planning board has matched these categories with a graded set of restrictions, which include buffers and setbacks on a business’s grounds and land spacing requirements that demand additional separation from “protected” structures such as houses, churches, daycares, and schools.

The commissioners ultimately agreed to impose these restrictions on all parts of the county that lie outside the purview of its cities and towns. In the meantime, they authorized the planning department to develop a zoning plan for an area that corresponds roughly to the Snow Camp fire district in the county’s southwestern corner.

After nearly two years of public workshops and steering committee meetings, the zoning proposal was formally unveiled to the public in December of last year. It wasn’t long, though, before this plan drew a hue and cry from regulation-wary residents.

On February 10, the planning board voted 11-to-1 to consign the zoning proposal to the proverbial waste basket in response to the outcry from the community. Its members also instructed the subcommittee that had worked on the plan to turn its attention instead to the county’s ordinance for heavy industrial development.

The subcommittee eventually came up with a list of recommendations that included a proposed increase in the land-spacing requirement for Class III industries from 1,200 to 2,000 feet. The county’s full planning board ultimately scaled this suggestion down to 1,500 feet. It nevertheless endorsed a proposed land-spacing waiver for businesses that are unable to meet “the strict letter” of the requirement due to “practical difficulties or particular hardships.”

The planning board also gave its collective blessing to other, relatively minor revisions. One of these adjustments proposed to exempt temporary sawmills, and those on 10 acres or less, from the rules for Class III industries. Meanwhile, another exemption is meant to enable business with construction-like operations to skirt the ordinance’s provisions for the construction of a new heavy industry.

[Story continues below photos.]


Alamance County planning director Tonya Caddle
Barry Tomlinson
Henry Vines
Jenefer Duane
Linda Lee
Ronald Spinhoven
Trip Overholt

Tonya Caddle, the county’s planning director, ultimately presented these nips and tucks to the board of commissioners prior to a state-mandated public hearing on Monday.

In response to a question from commissioner Pam Thompson, Caddle made it clear that these proposed revisions weren’t intended to serve as a “light substitute” for full-fledged zoning.

“Zoning would actually give you the ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to [a particular] use,” she explained to the county’s governing board. “That we do not have. What we have is technical review.”

 

Storm in Snow Camp
The commissioners received feedback on the proposed changes from a half dozen residents on Monday – all of whom hailed from the community of Snow Camp. These individuals were universally critical of the planning board’s recommendations, and in particular, its decision to roll back the subcommittee’s land-spacing proposal from 2,000 to 1,500 feet.

Among those who urged the commissioners to approve the more stringent proposal was Linda Lee, who inferred that the county’s legal department had persuaded the planning board to tamp down the subcommittee’s 2,000-foot recommendation.

“It has now been reduced to 1,500 feet, and this is unacceptable,” Lee told the commissioners. “Our community needs better protection.”

The 2,000-foot limit also drew words of support from fellow Snow Camp residents Trip Overholt, Ron Spinhoven, Barry Tomlinson, and Jenefer Gail Duane. Overholt even urged the commissioners to postpone any action on the planning board’s recommendation in order to revisit the 2,000-foot limit.

“I don’t think we should make that decision tonight,” he told the county’s governing board. “I think we should table it.”

Several of the public hearing’s participants called on the commissioners to implement a rudimentary form of zoning on the Snow Camp community. Lee and Duane specifically asked for this whole area zoned as “a rural preservation district.” Meanwhile, Henry Vines, a Snow Camp resident who has previously run for the board of commissioners, criticized the planning board for having jettisoned the original zoning plan for this part of the county.

“I just want to say that I’m disappointed in our planning board,” he told the commissioners. “I don’t understand how they can squash the zoning plan when you five commissioners gave them instructions to formulate a zoning plan…I would challenge each of you here tonight to put zoning back on the table.”

A number of speakers also complained about the activity of the aforementioned quarry in their remarks to the commissioners. Some objected to the growing amount of truck traffic that this business is apparently generating, while others accused its owners of bucking the restrictions that the county has placed on the mine’s operations.

“We are literally being run over by a mining operation,” one resident, Ruth Rogers, declared in exasperation. “They don’t care what they’re doing to our community.”

“I wonder why you are protecting big money interests,” added another neighbor, Barry Tomlinson, “and not sticking up for the residents of this county.”

Natalia Isenberg, a lawyer with the Teague Campbell law firm who has served as one of the county’s interim attorneys, urged the commissioners not to put off a decision on the proposed revisions in light of the feedback they heard from the public.

Isenberg noted the imminent expiration of a moratorium that the commissioners had placed on new heavy industries in order to give the planning board time to prepare a zoning ordinance for Snow Camp and, later, the suggested revisions to the heavy industrial development ordinance. She also disputed the implication that she or any other attorney for the county had discouraged the planning board from endorsing a 2,000-foot land spacing requirement.

“All we said,” she recalled, “is that when you make these determinations, you need a rational basis for the determination.”

 

A decision deferred
The commissioners, for their part, were generally unmoved by the calls for a tougher land-spacing limit.

“How is that going to fix it,” commissioner Pam Thompson said of this particular proposal. “We just seem to be going around in a circle here.”

The board of commissioners ultimately chose to delay action on the proposed land-spacing increase as well as the potential waiver that the planning board has suggested for businesses that face demonstrable hardships. The commissioners nevertheless gave their unanimous nod to the suggested exemptions for temporary sawmills and for construction-like activities that constitute a business’s regular operations.

In the meantime, however, a number of county officials seemed more eager to act on the complaints that their constituents had raised about the activities of the contentious stone quarry.

Sheriff Terry Johnson, for one, promised to step up traffic enforcement in the mine’s vicinity in response to repeated allegations that the trucks which frequent the site exceed the posted speed limit.

Meanwhile, Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, suggested that the county’s existing ordinances may need additional “canines” to allow the county to enforce the rules on the books.

An even stronger pledge of support came from commissioner Bill Lashley, who made no bones about how he thinks the county should deal with a company that runs roughshod over the public.

“If they are not abiding by the rules, it’s incumbent on us to stick it to them – to make them abide by the rules,” the commissioner said. “Maybe we should get legal to tell the people who own the company…that if they don’t get their excrement together they’re going to be out on their butt.”

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