Advocates want local approval power over quarries – Birmingham News 2/4/08

Advocates seek local approval over quarries – Birmingham News 2/4/08

News staff writer

KELLYTON – On a cold night last month, about 90 people packed the Kellyton fire station to ask about gravel trucks, blasting, dust and noise they fear would come with a granite quarry planned at the edge of their town in Coosa County.

They heard reassuring answers from the quarry owner and operators, who said it would bring good jobs and boost sales for nearby merchants and would be a considerate neighbor.

Some residents were not convinced, but there might be nothing they can do about it. Coosa County, like most counties in Alabama, has no planning and zoning authority and no control over the location of quarries.

“All of us around here have a quiet community,” said Hugo Sasser, 81, who has lived for 55 years on property less than a quarter-mile from the quarry. “This would disrupt everything as far as our daily lives are concerned.”

Sasser’s comments are similar to those sometimes heard in other rural communities around Alabama when residents learn a quarry is planned.

Conservation Alabama, an environmental lobbying group, wants to put some political clout into those sentiments.

The group wants the Legislature to pass a law that would require quarries to get approval from county commissions or town councils to locate in areas with no zoning. Only three of Alabama’s 67 counties exercise zoning authority in unincorporated areas – Jefferson County and parts of Shelby and Baldwin counties.

“It’s not so much about stopping or allowing quarries,” said Adam Snyder, executive director of Conservation Alabama. “It’s about giving the public a voice in the process. Currently, with quarries, the public doesn’t have a voice.”

The law would be similar to one that requires local approval of new landfills, Snyder said.

“It seems to me a reasonable approach that we ought to let our county commissions decide these things,” said Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, who will sponsor the bill.

McLaughlin got interested in the issue during a failed attempt to stop a quarry in Marshall County a few years ago. His bill failed to pass last year, and he expects strong opposition again.

David Donaldson, a spokesman for Vulcan Materials Co., which operates 23 quarries in Alabama, said it would be unfair to single out the quarry industry under what would be an expansion of local government authority.

“If you think about the general principle, it would be important that any kind of legislation that was taking up the question of home rule should not target or discriminate against any specific law-abiding business any more than it should discriminate against any individual,” Donaldson said.

Sonny Brasfield, assistant executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said counties need zoning authority, but not approval power over a single industry.

“We’re the only state in the Southeast where there’s not some kind of rural land use legislation, but we’re not in favor of doing it on an industry-by-industry basis,” Brasfield said.

The landfill law, passed in 1990, has resulted in lawsuits against counties, and the quarry law would do the same, he said.

Ebenezer Swamp:

Already, disputes about quarries often land in court.

In 2006, the University of Montevallo and the city of Montevallo went to court to successfully stop an 80-acre limestone quarry from being built near Ebenezer Swamp.The university uses the swamp as an ecological research center.

Last year, residents in Lipscomb and southwest Birmingham filed lawsuits against a nearby quarry, alleging it was causing sinkholes, damage to houses and breathing problems. Those cases are pending.

In Lee County, three quarries have been the source of litigation or heated opposition from residents.

“It’s something you don’t want in your neighborhood if you can avoid it,” said Mary Lou Smith, who lives near a quarry in Auburn whose operator was sued after sinkholes depleted part of the creek running through Chewacla State Park.

Benny Nolen of Montgomery, who owns the quarry property near Kellyton and would lease it to a quarry operator, said he wants to put residents at ease.

Nolen said he arranged the meeting at the fire station to tell residents what to expect and let them know he cared about their community. He and experts from the quarry industry answered dozens of questions during the meeting, which lasted more than two hours.

“Under no circumstances would I be doing something that I thought would have a harmful effect on people or devalue their property,” Nolen said.

Train will carry gravel:

A Norfolk Southern rail line runs beside the property, which means the bulk of the gravel will leave by train, not truck, Nolen said. He also stressed the economic benefit he said the quarry would bring. Most of the money from a 25-cent per ton severance tax on the granite removed would go to the county.

“I’m convinced that in five years they will say this is the best thing that ever happened to this area,” Nolen said.

Kellyton resident Sasser, who also spoke at the fire station meeting, is not convinced. He and others are circulating a petition opposing the quarry.

Sasser said they also will ask the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to hold a public hearing before issuing a permit. ADEM received a permit application in November. The agency will not grant a permit until it issues a notice and accepts public comments for at least 30 days.

Sasser is afraid it will be too late by then.

“At that point, I think it’s about sealed in concrete what they’re going to do,” Sasser said.

Wendy Seesock, who took part in a failed attempt to stop a quarry near Loachapoka about six years ago, spoke at the fire station meeting and said she can empathize with the people in Kellyton.

“They have no advocate,” Seesock said. “They feel like they’re being overrun by something that is not going to improve their way of life.”

© 2008 The Birmingham News
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