When bulldozers began demolishing trees on a hillside overlooking Waynesville’s main commercial thoroughfare this summer, Byron Hickox was bombarded by a flood of inquiries from suddenly civic-minded citizens.
The highly visible slope along Russ Avenue was denuded in a matter of weeks, followed by a steady parade of dump trucks carting off soil.
“I was getting five calls a day,” said Hickox, who works in the Waynesville town planning office.
Some wanted to know what in tarnation was happening to the mountainside along the town’s most well-traveled corridor. The clear-cut is even visible from the Laurel Ridge Golf Course two miles away, pointed out Chuck Worrell, a local business owner and golfer.
“It is going to be such an eyesore,” Worrell said.
Others were simply curious what was afoot.
“People wanted to know what was going in there, and the answer was nothing,” Hickox said.
Not a Taco Bell, not a Chick-fil-A, and definitely not a Cracker Barrel. The dozers weren’t clearing the way for anything in particular. It turns out the goal of the earth-moving venture was the earth-moving itself. The soil was mined to feed a federal clean-up of contamination at a former apple orchard in Haywood County. Arsenic-laced pesticides had polluted the soil there over the decades, but it was discovered only after the land was turned into a housing development.
The Barbers Orchard site landed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, triggering a $15 million federal clean-up, according to the EPA.
The massive operation called for digging up the top foot of soil from 88 acres, trucking it off and hauling in clean dirt to replace it with — more than 100,000 cubic yards of dirt in all.
Caroline-A-Contracting, run by Burton and Caroline Edwards of Maggie Valley, landed a $3 million contract to provide all that dirt and began looking for places to get it from. The 3.5-acre site on Russ Avenue across from Kmart — a stone’s throw from the highway and a straight-shot to Barbers Orchard — was a prime candidate.
“We purchased it mainly for the dirt,” Caroline Edwards said of the site on Russ Avenue. “We really don’t have any plans.”
The hope, of course, is that the previously forested and steep hillside is now more attractive to a potential developer looking for a visible lot on the town’s prime commercial corridor.
The site is still steep, but it has the making of a switchback driveway leading to a modest flat spot carved into the hillside about half-way up — hopefully making it marketable. So far, there are no takers, but grading only recently wrapped up.
“We are open to whatever,” Caroline Edwards said.
Selling dirt for the Superfund clean-up subsidized the cost of buying, clearing and grading the site, but fell short of bankrolling it entirely.
“By no means did we sell enough dirt to pay for it,” Caroline Edwards said of the property.
According to county property records, the site was purchased for $225,000.
The Russ Avenue property wasn’t the only one — not even the main one — used as a source for clean soil. A much larger digging operation in Maggie Valley supplied most of the clean soil, on a site owned by Burton Edward’s father, Kyle Edwards.
That site was a major nuisance to Chuck Worrell, the owner of High Country Furniture on Dellwood Road, which is located near the soil mining operation. The equipment was noisy, mud ran down the road, trucks tore up the road, and dust blew everywhere, Worrell said.
“I can’t even open the windows because the dust comes through there,” Worrell said.
Both sites were under the erosion control jurisdiction of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Wayne Watkins, a state erosion control officer based in Asheville, was assigned to monitor the work. He ended up with his fair share of calls from the public as well.
“Anytime people start cutting trees, the general public has a varying degree of sensitivity to that. Some see it as foul play and others don’t understand it is a work in progress,” Watkins said.
On a few occasions, Watkins had to ask the Edwards to fix erosion control measures, but they “responded appropriately,” Watkins said. Watkins required them to put in additional silt fences and beef up their groundcover of the bare soil in places. The Maggie Valley dirt-mining site even experienced at small slide that had to be stabilized, Watkins said.