When it comes to the environment, Madison County resident Garland Galloway wants folks to start seeing the big picture. “We’re trying to get people to open their eyes,” says Galloway, a Laurel Valley Watch member.
For three years, he explains, the local grass-roots group has been fighting a cluster of development projects in the Mars Hill/Wolf Laurel area. A particular focus has been blocking construction of a sewage- and wastewater-treatment plant that would discharge into Puncheon Fork Creek, a Class III trout stream that feeds into Big Laurel Creek.
About two years ago, the state Division of Water Quality granted a permit for the plant, and the Madison County commissioners issued a conditional-use permit—despite vocal opposition from Laurel Valley Watch, Clean Water for N.C. and the Western North Carolina Alliance.
The plant would serve the 900 to 1,000 homes planned for a mountaintop subdivision known as Scenic Wolf.
“We mounted a challenge, but it wasn’t until [a few weeks ago] that we got a [court] hearing,” says Laurel Valley Watch member Steve Crimi. Puncheon Fork is part of the headwaters for the Laurel River, which empties into the French Broad. In places, the small, near-pristine creek isn’t two steps across, says Crimi, who’s watched its water level drop during the ongoing drought—and when the nearby Wolf Laurel Ski Resort draws water for making snow. Crimi fears that Puncheon Fork can’t handle the volume of wastewater proposed for the plant (300,000 gallons per day).
In their court appeal, Laurel Valley Watch members also claim that state officials failed to do an adequate job during the permitting process, attorney Diane Van Helden explains. Before granting a permit, the Division of Water Quality allegedly didn’t analyze the water, measure stream levels on-site, or require the developers to explore other treatment options (such as a septic system). Charging that state officials used outdated data, Van Helden declares, “If you were actually concerned about water quality, you’d go out there and survey the stream.”
Scenic Wolf’s attorney in the appeal, Philip Anderson, declined comment until the judge rules later this year.
Galloway, meanwhile, says: “There’s not much left that we can do. We’re pretty much at the end of our fight [on this issue], and trying to raise awareness about the rest of the county.” Reflecting on the bigger picture involving not just Scenic Wolf but also other projects under way in Madison County, Galloway wonders, “Where are they going to get the water [supply] for those houses?” During last year’s drought, he points out, 12 houses on his road were without water. And while many residents—in Madison, Western North Carolina and across the state—“resist monitoring well-water use … if someone drills 100 wells on land next to you and your well goes dry … that affects you,” he argues.
The real fight, adds Crimi, is pushing “for some sort of countywide plan” that deals with these and other issues. One proposed development project in Laurel Valley would affect a wetland area, but a series of negotiations with the developer fell through, he notes.
And though Galloway concedes that it’s “hard to get local people to speak up”—and then to maintain the effort—he emphasizes that Laurel Valley Watch mobilized 300 people to attend the treatment-plant hearing last year. So whatever the outcome of the appeal, he concludes, “In spite of what people say, you can do something about [these things]—it just takes time.”