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Planning Board turns thumbs down on asphalt plant

Asphalt plant opponents confront Planning Board members after a public hearing on the plant. Asphalt plant opponents confront Planning Board members after a public hearing on the plant.

Short-circuiting a long night of opponents' comments at a public hearing, the Henderson County Planning Board voted on Thursday to recommend that the Board of Commissioners deny a rezoning request that would permit an asphalt  plant in East Flat Rock.

Board member Rick Livingston, the Mills River fire chief in his day job, made a motion to recommend denial of the request after delivering a withering rebuke to the asphalt plant opponents, saying their comments in emails and phone calls had been threatening, inappropriate and childish.

Livingston's motion to recommend a no vote on the rezoning was second by Bruce Hatfield, a board member who consistently votes against disruptive rezoning requests opposed by neighboring homeowners. Joining them were Jim Miller, Jennifer Balkcom and Steve Dozier. Blake Baird and Hunter Marks voted no.

The board vote came after about an hour-long presentation from the applicant, Southeastern Asphalt owner Jeff Shipman, and the team he has hired to help: a civil engineer, Asheville land-use attorney Brian Gulden, a representative from the company that would install the plant and an environmental engineer.

"I think it's absurd," Shipman said after the vote. "I disagee with everyone that voted against it unequivocally. We're trying to expand business, create jobs. I don't even have the words, to be honest with you. What a disappointment."

Speaking to the audience widely spaced in the conference hall, Livingston said that during his time on the Planning Board that he had seen numerous contentious rezoning cases but never one "where there is so much emotion and venom and anger as with this one.

"A lot of the content in your emails and phone calls border on the edge of being threatening and intimidating and that is totally uncalled for and unacceptable in my opinion," he said. "Honestly, some of what I have had to read and listen to has been very childish and totally inappropriate in my opinion. Some folks need to learn to conduct themselves as adults."

Yet, turning to his evaluation of the asphalt plant, Livingston gave the opponents exactly what they wanted.

"I'm not oposed to asphalt plants. We have to have them," he said. "If we're going to maintain our roads due to grwoth, which is inevitable, we've got to have those asphalt plants. But they need to be strategically located in suitable areas in my opinion."

The zoning to allow the plant in East Flat Rock "would not conform to the county comprehensive plan or to the East Flat Rock community plan, which this board has spent years developing," he said. "This is a very residential area with the potential for many future problems if an asphalt plant were to be located there."

Bruce Griffith, the owner of a small trailer park across the site, said no one talked about the 70 people in his trailer park and another one next door. He said he was happy the board voted as it did.

Around 90 people turned out for the Planning Board's public hearing on the request, moved to the Blue Ridge Conference Hall at BRCC because of the intense interest and expected large crowd.

The planning staff had made plans to allow the first 100 people in and have others remain outside until more seats opened up. There was no need for that, since seats were available, including three on the front row, like at the Baptist Church.

Around 20 homeowners wore green "Friends of East Flat Say No to Proposed Asphalt Plant" while seven employees and family members wore bright yellow "Say Yes! To Proposed Asphalt Plant" T-shirts.

It's costly and inefficient to buy asphalt from other plants and that when those plants are owned by competitors SE Asphalt trucks go last, Shipman said. The site for the proposed plant on Spartanburg Highway at the U.S. 25 Connector is surrounded by a five-lane road, the U.S. 25 connector and woods that he said would remain.

"It's not all about money," he said. "It's about owning a business. I'm fairly certain we all work in order to provide for our family. We're no different, that's all we're trying to do."

He cited one part of the East Flat Rock community plan that said the plan aimed to "promote commecial and industrial development." The site is farther than the minimum distance from churches, schools, parks and other places listed in the county land-use code.

In an interview earlier Thursday, Shipman made the case for the plant.

Engineer Warren Sugg, of Civil Design Concepts, opened the technical side of the applicant's case, listing ways he said the plant would protect natural resources including streams and wetlands and erosion. The property is in an urban service area, according to the county land-use plan, has soil that is suitable for development and is not in a floodplain. The developer will have to draft a stormwater control plan. The closest stream, Laurel Creek, is C-rated, or lesser quality, he said.

A representative of the Tennessee company that would manufacture the plant itself said the plant would not be harmful.

"A big question on everbody's mind is how environmentally friendly an aspaht can be," said Catherine Sutton Choate, director of environmental compliance for Astec, of Chattanooga.

The company has built asphalt plants in more 100 countries around the world, many of which have are more stringent regulations than the U.S., she said. "It's environmentally friendly because it's not a chemical process, it's a mixing process. It's also an environmentally friendly because they have the ability to use recycled resources," such as milled asphalt.

Many neighboring property owners and river users have expressed concern about water pollution, she said.

"Asphalt is not soluble," Choate said. "It won't leak any toxic chemical out of it because it is solid....  Asphalt is environmentally friendly. It's not going to bleed into the water."

The risk of a spill is very low, she said, because a berm would contain any spill and because of asphalt cools and hardens quickly.

"What makes this plant particularly environmentally friendly is we have sep the mixing the drying," she said. Gases are filtered and dust is separated in a baghouse — a large filter — before they're released from the plant.  Sound would not exceed 70 db(A), which she compared to a dishwasher sound. The burner would be muffled by a silencer. Exhaust fans would operate at a lower rpm, lowering the noise. Drum mixers would be run not by a chain drive but smaller motors. Emissions from the mixing plant "is a mere fraction of the emissions that are being generated by just cars that are registered in the county," Choate said.

Gulden said that the East Flat Rock site was appropriate for the plant. The site is surrounded by five different types of land uses, he said, and the application meets requirements for a conditional zone.