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Fight against East Flat Rock asphalt plant gains momentum

 EAST FLAT ROCK — Homeowners who live near a proposed asphalt plant on Spartanburg Highway have set up a website and Facebook page, begun to organize into an array of committees for the fight, contacted more than a dozen attorneys and collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition opposing the land-use change.


Organizers of Friends of East Flat Rock Say No to Asphalt Plant took stock of where they were in the battle and what they needed to do next during a Saturday morning Zoom meeting ahead of the first public airing of the zoning change on Monday afternoon. The organizers also received word via Facebook that members of the Flat Rock Village Council are poised to talk about the rezoning and potentially take a stand to oppose it this week.

Southeastern Asphalt owner Jeffrey B. Shipman is seeking a conditional use rezoning to allow the asphalt drum plant on 6½  acres of a 12-acre site at the northwestern corner of Spartanburg Highway and the U.S. 25 Connector. A neighborhood compatibility meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday, June 8, during which the applicant and engineers will present an overview of the proposed project and answer questions from the public. Because of social distancing requirements, the meeting will be held remotely.  People interested in commenting can access the site here and find the staff report here.

Michelle Tenant Nicholson and her husband, Shannon Nicholson, have organized the opposition. Michelle Nicholson and her neighbors say they fear the plant would release toxins in the air, create traffic, noise and light pollution and hurt the tourism economy by putting a potentially polluting facility at a main gateway.

“Since Wednesday we have 1,917, and growing (signatures),” Michelle Nicholson said. By Sunday morning, the number of signers exceeded 2,500 and by Monday morning the total had topped 3,000.

Asphalt plants, the petition says, "are major sources of cancer-causing toxic air pollutants including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, cadmium, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and very fine condensed particulates." Other concerns besides "the loss of clean air and decreased property values are smell, noise and the danger of increased heavy equipment operating in our area."

Around a dozen people joined a Zoom meeting on Saturday morning during which the Nicholsons and others began to talk about dividing up numerous tasks in a battle to defeat the rezoning, which would go to the Planning Board on June 18 for a recommendation before being approved or denied by the Board of Commissioners.

The Friends of East Flat Rock is shaping up as the kind of grassroots force that has become formidable when homeowners organize to oppose highway projects and disruptive land uses, whether they are large subdivisions, retail businesses, road widenings or other changes. A beekeeper, Michelle Nicholson also has a public relations business; her husband designs websites. A homeowner at the Zoom meeting with an IT background volunteered to set up a large screen TV in a neighbor's yard so that older people unable to access virtual meetings could watch. An opponent from Flat Rock has a background in community organizing. A property owner offered her vacant frontage along Spartanburg Highway for yard signs.

Michelle Nicholson said she had contacted 10 attorneys to potentially hire and received advice that the opposition needs a zoning lawyer more than it needs an environmental specialist at this point. She mentioned Brian Gulden, a former Henderson County planner who is now a land-use attorney in Asheville. But she said Gulden, the slayer of gun ranges, a proposed residential drug rehab facility and other rezoning cases that have drawn broad opposition, had been hired by the applicant.

The Nicholsons also said:

  • MountainTrue director and Green Riverkeeper Gray Jernigan has volunteered the nonprofit organization to help. "Mountain True has stepped in to say we’ll act as your fiscal sponsor for accepting donations on your behalf," Shannon Nicholson said. "Those donations are donated to a nonprofit, and then it’s disbursed out according to the need and according to things that meet the criteria of going towards the cause."
  • The Friends of East Flat Rock spelled out five things opponents can do now: Submit comments by 11:45 Sunday night before the neighborhood compatibility meeting; attend the meeting via Zoom; let county commissioners know they oppose the rezoning; sign the petition; and join the Facebook group.
  • The opponents are reaching out to the Latino community to let business owners, homeowners and renters know of the proposal. Last week, Michelle appealed to Hola Carolina, Mountain BizWorks and Pisgah Legal Services for help in reaching Hispanic neighbors and asked for volunteers to translate the website, fliers and in person.
  • Signs are encouraged. “I’m a big proponent of signs, especially on Spartanburg Highway," Shannon Nicholson said. For now, a priority is to “get the word out to our community. If we all knocked on our neighbors’ doors to the east and west and the north and the south and asked them to do the same thing this would spread like wildfire. Everybody would know within a short amount of time.”

"From my perspective, there's an application being submitted for rezoning," Shannon Nicholson said. "The county is following their guidelines, whether we agree with that or not. This application must be considered by the county. This (neighborhood compatibility meeting) is the first step, a hearing for the developer to answer questions. They're required to consider this application so it looks like they’re moving ahead with it. We don’t know if they’re already thinking, ''There’s no way we’re moving forward with this,' or if they’re moving full steam ahead."

Ron Redmon, a resident of Highland Lake Village for the past 10 years, and  his husband moved here from a community in Watauga County “that has fought asphalt plants off and on," he said. "This is sadly familiar territory and I’m happy to put my warrior clothes back on.”

Jo Chambers, an accountant and chief financial officer for a company, is a lifelong resident of Henderson County who plans to retire in the Lakemont area.

“I have a lot of frontage on Spartanburg Highway and I’m willing to donate it” for signs, she said. “Anything you want to do there, we can put there — outside of an asphalt plant of course.”

Another homeowner, Connie Bressler, suggested that the East Flat Rock neighbors should enlist Saluda residents in the fight. “I just thought they would get a lot of the smell, with the wind going that way," she said.

“If I lived in Saluda I would be horrified by this," Shannon Nicholson said. "Saluda is world renowned for its air quality.”

The fight is likely to spread this week to the Flat Rock Village Council, which has been consumed over the past three years by asphalt, the finished product, in the form of the Highland Lake Road widening. Anne Coletta, the leader of the anti-widening faction that took control of the council last November, notified the Nicholsons that the council will take up the proposal on Thursday.

"As a Flat Rock council member, I wanted to let this group know that our mayor and council are concerned about the proposed rezoning request and hope to discuss this at our June 11 council meeting, to be held via Zoom," she said. "Just a reminder that the area is in Henderson County, not the Village of Flat Rock, but we’re concerned about possible impacts."

For the Flat Rock Village Council, people can submit comments to and access the meeting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday here. Comments from the public must be received by the village clerk by noon Wednesday June 10, in order to be read at the meeting.

Michelle Nicholson told everyone to go to their toolbox and get out the duct tape. Opponents plan to wear the tape on their clothing, signaling that "we're sticking together" to defeat the rezoning request.