Buncombe County Commission

Will loosening present junkyard laws help clean up unlicensed auto recyclers — or will it legalize currently illegal operations and cause an explosion of unsightly new businesses in Buncombe County?

Because of the ambiguous nature of the industry, which can include anyone from auto salvagers to “shade-tree” mechanics, the answer proved elusive enough to give commissioners pause on Oct. 20. No action was taken, although commissioners do plan to come to a decision soon.

Commissioners Patsy Keever and David Gantt, in a rare (but still respectful) disagreement, offered differing perspectives on a proposed ordinance. According to Keever, a new, looser ordinance would give smaller, unlicensed dealers currently operating without permits “a chance to be legitimate,” and would also help provide firmer legal grounds to rid the county of the most problematic unlicensed dealers. “In our junk-car ordinance,” she said, referring to the law passed last April 14, “there was not room for those [unlicensed businesses] to operate.”

Gantt, on the other hand, argued that the proposed ordinance is far too lenient and would potentially encourage the establishment of lots of new auto recyclers — primarily in low-income areas, which typically don’t have restrictive covenants.

The proposed ordinance would allow junkyards to operate as long as they are 500 feet from existing structures located on neighboring properties (half of the present requirement). It would allow the businesses to operate on lots as small as two acres, rather than the four contiguous acres presently needed. “Anyone with two acres of land can apply [to establish] a junkyard,” Gantt argued, “as long as they meet the other requirements. If I was a junkyard owner, I’d be jumping up and down, because my costs would be cut in half.”

Gantt went on to condemn the ordinance for what he termed a “large loophole”: a grandfather clause that would permit all junkyards existing on Feb. 2, 1991, and all auto recyclers in operation on Nov. 1, 1996. “Forget about the 500 feet and the two acres,” he said. “You can be two feet away from a property line” and still be in business.

Keever, however, maintained that even the people who are grandfathered have to follow the strict buffering requirements, which include opaque fencing or vegetative shielding.

Urging her fellow commissioners to action, she said, “This has been a long process, and it’s just to get something on the table, for public input.”

While the county now has only 23 licensed junkyards, no one was able to say how many existing unpermitted businesses would be legitimized by the new ordinance. County staff offered estimates ranging from 15 to 200. Commissioner David Young said that uncertainty is precisely what bothers him. “There’s a difference between grandfathering in 10 and grandfathering in 200,” he observed.

Perhaps in response to the restrictive tone that the meeting was beginning to take, Chairman Tom Sobol reminded everyone that economic development is important to the Board of Commissioners. “We don’t want to put a person out of business who depends on this to feed his family. But if we don’t make some limitations, or if we don’t have some compromise on this, then we’re going to put some folks out of work.”

If this ordinance goes into effect, he declared it may actually have a beneficial effect — implying that the law might more clearly separate the hobbyists from the legitimate businessmen, and help clean up a large number of unsightly areas. Eventually, continued Sobol, the market for more junkyards will necessarily limit itself.

In the public-comment portion of the meeting, however, several tales of junkyard woes emerged. Candler resident Jerry Rice, who lives on Starnes Cove Road, told a story of a junkyard gone bad: poor environmental safeguards, unsightly conditions and diminished property rights. “The road passes right through the junkyard,” Rice said. “It amazes me that these people even have permits to put [the junkyard] on either side of the road.”

All kinds of fluids, he said — including oil, brake fluid and freon — leak out of the cars. And a stream runs right through the property, he noted, on its way through other residents’ properties with drinking-water wells.

Associate County Attorney Stan Clontz countered Rice’s complaints by reminding the board that the proposed ordinance does not exempt a licenseholder from environmental-protection laws.

Several other county residents also recounted complaints about nearby junkyards. Larry Moore, who lives next to a junkyard operated by Charles Proffit, wondered if it would be grandfathered under the proposed law, even though the county had issued its permit in error. Phil Pickens, another neighbor bordering Proffit’s business, complained about mosquito problems, open tanks of “hazardous waste” (which turned out to be gasoline), and the lack of visual buffering, as required by the ordinance. “[The owner] cleared his property line right up to mine,” Pickens claimed. “I can stand in my yard and see that junkyard, even though it’s 500 feet from my house.”

County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman confirmed that the permit was given in error, but added that Proffit has been operating under it for several years. “[The permit] will not be revoked until we get the ordinance and the amendments finalized,” he said, adding that it would be better to wait and see what restrictions are written into law, before taking action.

And Proffit defended himself, saying, “All these people need to do is come talk to me. I’ve got to make a dollar, too.”

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