After a seven-hour hearing on May 14, the Board of Adjustment unanimously denied a conditional-use permit for a controversial concrete plant proposed for north Buncombe County.
The hearing came after a string of cancellations and reschedulings during the 10 months since Asheville Concrete (now Blue Ridge Concrete) first submitted the application (see “Neighbors Question Cement Plant,” Sept. 12, 2007 Xpress).
Attorney Keith Johnson argued that although the site is surrounded by residential properties, it’s not actually zoned as such and thus should not be restricted to residential use. Concrete plants are one of a number of uses that automatically require a conditional-use permit under the county’s open-zoning system.
But after hearing hours of testimony and public comment, board members apparently found it hard to ignore the residential nature of the area, near the intersection of Murphy Hill Road and the Old Mars Hill Highway.
“A concrete plant, as we grow, is going to be needed,” said board member Con Dameron. “But this is a primarily residential area [and] this site in particular is highly visible.”
In considering a conditional-use permit, the Board of Adjustment weighs a proposed project’s impact on the health and safety of the surrounding area, as well as the effect on property values. In this case, said board member George Lycan, the project did not measure up.
“There’s no way we can find that,” he said. “It cannot pass the requirements.”
For board member John Yurko, a major sticking point was the facility’s need for large amounts of water. Several opponents spoke about the danger to surrounding wells if the concrete plant tapped into the water table. And though the city of Weaverville has agreed to supply water to the plant if the company installed a line, attorney Gary Davis submitted an affidavit from neighbors of the site who said they would refuse to allow such a line to cross their properties.
“The water issue poses some of the most severe risk to the neighbors, and that risk is something we are charged to protect,” said Yurko. “I see no way for this board to find any other way to [vote] than ‘No.’”
About 300 people filled the auditorium at North Buncombe Middle School. An earlier hearing, in March, was abruptly adjourned after it was pointed out that letters notifying neighbors of the hearing had not gone out the required 10 days in advance. That hearing was held in the county training room on College Street, which couldn’t accommodate the nearly 200 people who showed up.
Both the concrete plant and the opposition, organized primarily by the North Buncombe Association of Concerned Citizens, were represented by attorneys, and both presented expert witnesses to speak to the project’s larger concerns. Those included air and water quality, noise and the traffic impact of trucks entering and leaving the site.
But the bulk of the evening was devoted to considering the potential impacts on the predominantly residential area. Real-estate broker Steve Holland pointed out that there are 35 homes within a quarter-mile of the site, and several other speakers mentioned the three surrounding public schools and a private Baptist school in the works.
School-bus driver Randy Bassham testified that Murphy Hill barely has room for school buses, much less concrete trucks using the same access point to the Old Mars Hill Highway.
“It is an extremely narrow road that is already really dangerous,” he said. “If you put concrete trucks on that road, you put children’s lives in jeopardy.” (Bassham, who heads up a movement to locate a multipurpose athletic center in the area, has argued that the Murphy Hill Road site would be an ideal location.)
Susan Kask, an economics professor at Warren Wilson College, said that besides depressing surrounding property values, siting the plant there would open the door to other high-impact uses in the area.
“Once you put an industrial plant in the area, other industrial plants will come,” she predicted. Putting a concrete plant there, she continued, would be a mortal blow to what’s now a highly visible gateway to the Flat Creek community.
People speaking on behalf of Blue Ridge Concrete downplayed those concerns. Owner Mark Turner defended the safety records of drivers at his existing concrete operations in Savannah and Macon, Ga., and in Knoxville. Turner added that his company would plant trees around the site to reduce its visual and noise impacts. Expert witnesses also soft-pedaled the threats of air, water and noise pollution.
Johnson dismissed the opposition’s arguments as unproven fears and thus not criteria that can legally be factored in when considering a conditional-use permit. And during his final comments, the attorney pressed home his point that the area is not specifically zoned residential.
But the board wasn’t biting. With the hour advancing past midnight and only 80 or so observers left in the audience, board members aired their misgivings about the proposal one by one—and then, in short order, voted 7-0 to deny the permit.
The decision marked a victory for the grass-roots North Buncombe Association of Concerned Citizens, and a whoop and applause erupted among those remaining in the room. Association head Martha Claxton was quickly on the phone with her allies to inform them of the decision, telling Xpress that she now has to focus on fundraising to make up the money the group spent on attorney fees. Nonetheless, she said, the outcome was a relief.
Meanwhile, Blue Ridge Concrete still owns the Murphy Hill Road property. At press time, there was no word on the company’s plans, and Turner had no comment after the ruling. The company can appeal the decision in Superior Court, but it would have to contend that the Board of Adjustment failed to follow the legally prescribed procedures in hearing the case.