Opponents appealed to county commissioners again this week — their fourth appearance before commissioners in two months — this time asking for a countywide moratorium on waste incinerators.
“The swiftness with which our community and county came together is incredible,” said Debbie King, a leader of the opposition movement against the recycling sorting plant.
But King said it was too soon to declare victory. King fears the people behind the controversial recycling clearinghouse could still have their sights set on Haywood County — not just for an operation that mines recyclables from the waste stream but also for an incinerator that would burn the waste left over after the sorting process.
And while the industrial park is now off the table, there’s nothing to stop such an operation from locating somewhere else in Haywood County given the lack of land-use regulations.
King asked commissioners to impose a moratorium on waste incinerators to allow for a study period.
Commissioners were unreceptive to the idea, however. Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the notion of an incinerator was a red herring concocted by a handful of opponents as a rumor to whip up opposition to the recycling center in the Beaverdam industrial park.
“There was never, ever, ever going to be incineration, gasification or a waste dump in Beaverdam. We were never, ever going to do that,” Ensley said. “I don’t know how it got turned…I do know how it got turned…but it was wrong.”
Some opponents feared an incinerator was a secret part of the plan for the recycling clearinghouse all along.
The front man for the proposed recycling plant had pitched a waste incinerator a few years ago in Transylvania County, and critics feared that he would do the same thing in Haywood to get rid of the waste left over after sifting out recyclables.
Ensley took issue with that theory.
“This was just a big metal building where they took recyclables and dumped them in a big hopper and ran them along conveyor belts,” Ensley said. “That’s all the project ever was.”
Commissioner Mark Swanger said the opponents’ request for a moratorium on incinerators was flawed. The speakers wanted the moratorium to include biomass, gasification and waste-to-energy conversion.
Swanger said the broad terminology would apply to anyone who burned firewood and to Evergreen Paper mill, which produces a portion of their electricity by burning scrap wood chips. It would also apply to the process used at the old county landfill that converts built-up underground methane into electricity.
“There’s a lot that goes into this beyond buzz words. There’s a lot of real life things that go into a moratorium on such a broad stroke,” Swanger said.
Swanger also questioned whether the county could legally impose a moratorium under state statute in the absence of as tangible threat.
“We don’t have any conditions. We have rhetoric. We have people talking about it. But we have no specific conditions that exist that would warrant a moratorium,” Swanger said.
Pam Bailey, who also spoke at the commissioners meeting this week, said the residents of Haywood County dodged the bullet this time, but what about next time?
“There will be others interested in purchasing land in Haywood for harmful and undesirable types of industry,” she said. “We want our county to be protected from harm and developed into a place where we can all live, work and play without a fear of what might happen next.”
But Swanger said such a proposition was a “slippery slope” to zoning.
“I do not intend to support a moratorium,” Swanger said.
“Nope,” Ensley added.
The debate over the recycling center has been laced with unspoken political overtones. Leaders of the opposition movement have been vocal political adversaries of county government over the years.
The large crowd that joined their outcry over the recycling center seemingly evaporated overnight.
Opponents numbered over 150 at the first public hearing. This week, only five spoke up for a moratorium.
The fickle nature of the opposition — which emerged only when their own backyard was on the line — is telling. The recycling center controversy that just a few weeks ago gave rise to impassioned pleas to protect the rural character of Beaverdam could have been a catalyst for a larger discussion about land-use protections, but instead rose and fell like a one-shot wonder.
County Planner Kris Boyd said it would be unusual for a county to single out just one heavy industrial use like incinerators. Counties that have high-impact use ordinances address a host of industries that some would consider offensive — due either to noise, fumes, dust or light.
“It would be difficult to single out one certain industry to regulate. Why is this one particular industry so bad you would want to prohibit it?” Boyd said. “If you were going to explore the issue, would you probably not also explore some of the like entities instead of just one?”
But that’s apparently not what those calling for a moratorium on incinerators intended.
“I am not in favor of big government. I feel like we have too many ordinances,” said Richard West, who nonetheless advocated for a moratorium on incinerators.
When asked whether his concern over incinerators applied to other industries that could pose a nuisance for neighbors, West said ‘no.’
“I do not want comprehensive anything. I would rather use a rifle than a shotgun. You get a lot more collateral damage with a shotgun,” West said.
There are no rules in Haywood County, except in town limits, on what type of industry can go where. The only reason the county had a say so in the recycling plant was because county industrial park land was involved.
Jeremy Davis, another recycling plant opponent, was stumped when asked whether there should be more regulations to keep uses like this from happening elsewhere in the county.
“Zoning is a tough issue,” said Davis. “I am a big believer in individual property rights — my property my way.”
He wasn’t sure how to square his overarching philosophy with his opposition to the recycling center.
“That’s a tough one. It’s something I would need to think about,” Davis said.
Adam King, who spoke out at a commissioner meeting two weeks ago, said just because he opposed the recycling plant in Beaverdam doesn’t mean he wants land-use regulations governing what kinds of heavy industries can go where.
“That gets into zoning issues. Nobody wants to go whole hog on zoning,” King said.
The debate over land use — whether development should have guidelines or be solely up to free enterprise — often shakes out along party lines.
Democrats are more likely to believe in land-use planning while Republicans are more likely to have a laissez-faire philosophy.
But the discussion playing out in Haywood has been a party role reversal. West, Davis and King — advocates of a moratorium on incinerators — are leaders of the local Republican Party.
The commissioners who rejected the idea of a moratorium are mostly Democrats.
Haywood less progressive than neighbors in regulating high-impact industry
Most mountain counties lack comprehensive land-use regulations known as zoning, instead using a suite of ordinances tailored to address a singular problem.
Haywood County has rules for cell towers, helicopter sight-seeing operations, billboards, adult entertainment, trailer parks and steep slope construction, but it has nothing on the books that governs heavy industrial use.
Jackson and Macon counties have had ordinances regulating “high-impact uses” and heavy industry for over a decade, however.
Macon County’s governs a dozen specific operations including air strips, saw mills, slaughterhouses, race tracks, mining, asphalt plants and incinerators.
Jackson’s is more sweeping, governing the much broader category of “heavy industry.”
The ordinances in Jackson and Macon stipulate that high-impact uses have to be a certain distance from their neighbors, ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 feet. That means finding an awfully big tract to comply with the minimum separation. Realistically, it could be tantamount to a ban if such a parcel couldn’t be found.
“There probably aren’t a lot of areas where an industry coming to town would be allowed,” said John Jeleniewski with the Jackson planning department. “I don’t think it bans it. Those tracts do exist. You would have to look for the appropriate parcel.”