At about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, a marathon meeting on three mining requests came to a close with a lot more digging to do. When the dust cleared following the six-hour session, one request was approved and two others were still on the table to be considered at a special meeting at the City Hall Auditorium next week.
The requests for special use permit requests for sand and gravel mining operations on High House, Five Bridge and Fleet Naylor roads were continued by the Sampson County Planning Board last month. Drafting and Design Services, Inc. has proposed to establish operations at Timothy Sod, LLC, Emerald Sod, LLC and Belvoir Sod, LLC, all ventures on land owned by County Commissioner Clark Wooten.
Attorney Andrew Jackson, representing the applicant, brought several expert witnesses forward — three real estate and business appraisers — each giving their qualifications before speaking to the matter. As it was last month, the City Hall Auditorium was standing room only.
After three and a half hours, the Planning Board approved a special use permit request for the first request considered, Timothy Sod’s “Big Easy” mine, a 254-acre tract, 49 acres of which will be developed to include a 5.2-acre plant site.
It passed by a 4-1 vote, with board member Sherri Smith voting against the measure.
The 44.1-acre mining area will be a 10-year pit, Michael Blakley of Drafting and Design Services, Inc. said. He noted there will be a significant buffer, a burm extending 100 feet and measuring 6 feet tall. Natural buffer will also be left alone.
“This type of operation does not substantially decrease the value of adjoining properties,” said Blakley. “This is in harmony with the area. All water will be recycled and no dirty water will leave the plant site. All water is treated before it runs off site.”
He also pointed out that, once the mining was done, the site “will be restored to a lake” as part of a required reclamation project. However, that could be in the distant future. While there would be a 10-year state permit to sell materials from what Blakely called a “wet dredging” operation, the life could be double or triple that, or even longer.
“It could be 35-40 years that we mine that property,” said Blakley, before adding, “It could be 70 years, depending on the demand for the materials.”
The area to be developed could also expand with a modified special use permit. He spoke to community concerns about dust, stating adamantly that there would be none.
“Dust control is a must,” he remarked, speaking to air quality and other mandates by which such operations are governed. “Stockpiles are wet and a water truck will be used if they get dry. Essentially, what we’re doing is building a pond and selling the materials we get out of it. There is no dust in this type of operation. It will always be wet at any given time.”
The comment was met by guffaws from many in the crowd. Several spoke in opposition.
“We feel like we’re almost being forced out of our homestead,” said Jean Guin, whose family has been in the Westbrook community since the “mid to late 1800s.”
Real estate agent and appraiser Locke Godwin, along with Brandon Wills of Tom Keith & Associates Inc. of Fayetteville, presented research that asserted properties would not decrease in values.
“We feel no one would want to live between two sand mines,” Guin said. “Despite what all the experts are telling us that our land will not be devalued, we are not convinced.”
She raised concerns of air and water quality, as well as traffic with trucks expected to run up and down Fleet Naylor and adjacent roadways. For years, Fleet Naylor was a dirt road. Now it is poised to receive a great deal of truck traffic.
“It’s sort of shocking,” said Guin’s niece Sandra Bledsoe, who also talked to the family’s history on the land. “Our land is very important to us. It’s where our grandmother and her sister were raised. I don’t want my grandmother’s land to be used as an industrial area.”
She alluded to the standards that a special use permit must meet.
The use must: not materially endanger the public health or safety; meet all required conditions and specifications; not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property; and be in harmony with the area and in general conformity with the Sampson County Land Use Plan.
“It will affect the value to us. We live there,” said Bledsoe. “To us, it won’t be in harmony with what is going on in our area.”
Godwin said he was tasked to determine whether a sand or gravel excavation operation would adversely affect adjacent properties. He evaluated properties near abandoned mine locations in Sampson and Johnston counties, using the tax values of 19 parcels near those mine sites following the 2011 revaluations in those counties. He said the tax value increased at “100 percent” of the properties.
“It is my opinion that a mine would not cause a diminution of property values,” said Godwin, greeted by murmurs from those in attendance.
Attorney Clifton Hester, representing those in opposition in the Five Bridge and High House requests, would later grill Godwin during the High House request about his research, asking how it could be credible considering he did not look at the property tax values across the county to see if those likewise increased. However, Hester, hired by the contingent in the Belvoir Township opposing the High House and Five Bridge requests, did not cross-examine any of the witnesses as part of the first matter.
Wills conducted an environmental impact study, looking at property sales near active mining operations in Roseboro and Ivanhoe, as well as in Onslow and Wake counties, to determine whether there was an impact to properties. He used similar studies by his firm conducted in the past decade on mining and quarry operations.
“In none of these studies, or the ones that we have done in the past 10 years, did we find that the mines have any negative impact to the adjoining, abutting or nearby properties,” said Wills.
Wills used graphs to show the distance from the mines versus property value. If the line goes up — value getting higher as the distance gets further away — there is an impact. He said he simply did not see anything like that.
“There was no correlation between the property values and the mines,” he stated of two Roseboro properties. “The properties did what they did and the mine was just there.”
There was not enough data around sparsely-populated Ivanhoe to draw any conclusions, he said. Hester would later go back and forth with Wills during the High House request, but like Godwin was not cross-examined at all during the first matter.
“This is a real thing affecting real families,” said Elaine West Lewis, another resident adjacent to the proposed “Big Easy” mine. “If this is permitted, our lives will change forever. Westbrook is a very viable community and that will change the complexion of our neighborhood. Mining is not farming. It is depleting the land. That is not in harmony with anything that has to do with our rural, farming neighborhood. We love our land, we love our farmers and we love Sampson County.”
“We deserve better than this,” she concluded.
Jackson urged the board to grant the special use permit, stating “competent, material and substantial evidence” had been presented in support of the mine and the request met the four standards.
The vote was 4-1 to approve, with chairman Scott Brown, Gary Mac Herring, Debra Bass and Nancy Blackman supporting the request, Smith dissenting. Ann Naylor and Gary Henry were absent from the proceedings.
Following a break, the board began hearing the High House request, with expert testimony still ongoing past midnight, this time with Hester cross-examining witnesses. Opposition just began to be heard in that request when the board decided to call it a night, with more than half a dozen still scheduled to speak.
The proposed High House Road mining operation contains approximately 279.42 acres, with about half of that — 141.8 acres — proposed to be developed. The Five Bridge mining proposal contains 510 acres, with 330.5 acres to be developed.
High House resident Billy Satterfield, one of the people who spearheaded the community rally against the mines over the last several months, took to the podium after midnight.
“To say that this operation can come into our community, not affect it and that it is in harmony, is an insult to the neighborhood,” he remarked. “Mr. Wooten bought into our neighborhood. He is not our neighbor.”
The board will meet again to continue its mine discussion and mull the two other requests at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.