The Sampson County Planning Board has heard 10 hours of talk on a mining proposal for Five Bridge Road, and it is not even close to done.
In fact, the last half hour of Monday night’s meeting, which was adjourned at 11 p.m., was spent discussing just how much longer the matter will take as nearly a dozen more people are set to speak in opposition and attorney Clifton Hester, representing the contingent opposed to the request, expressed his desire to engage his own real estate appraiser as an expert witness.
That was met with concerns by attorney Andrew Jackson, who is representing applicant Drafting and Design Services, Inc., as to why such an appraiser was not engaged yet. He said the applicant has come prepared to each of the half dozen meetings held on its four mining requests.
“We haven’t had six months to get ready for this,” Hester shot back. “We had two weeks.”
At the top of Monday’s session, Jackson made formal objections to lay witnesses offering testimony on the mining operation’s effect on property values, saying that it was “not competent” evidence.
“Only a licensed real estate appraiser can say that a proposed development would cause a dimunition in value to property, even if that property is their own,” Jackson said, alluding to those who have spoken in opposition.
Two mines have already been approved, another denied and the Five Bridge proposal remains the sole request outstanding.
The Big Easy mine on Fleet Naylor was approved in November, on the heels of the White Sands Mine in close proximity to that area in September.
In November, the same board denied a request for a mine on High House Road following a nearly eight-hour meeting that extended until 2 a.m. In all, the board spent 10 hours in discussions about High House. It has already spent that hearing testimony in the Five Bridge matter —with still “a ways to go,” board chairman Scott Brown conceded at the conclusion of Monday’s session.
All land is owned by County Commissioner Clark Wooten, who has been present for the past two meetings but has not spoken.
In the High House case, the board vote ultimately came down 3-2 in favor of the mining venture, however it represented a “simple majority” for the 7-member board, which requires four votes to pass a motion.
Board members Ann Naylor and Gary Henry were absent from the High House proceedings but all board members have been present for both meetings this month. The board in its entirety is expected to be present for the duration of the Five Bridge issue, which will continue again next month.
More than 25 hours has been spent in meetings over the past month and half hearing mining issues related to proposed mines on Fleet Naylor Road, High House Road and Five Bridge Road, with the latter still unsettled.
“What we’re running into is … we’re running late, one time until 2 in the morning, and testimony starts running into testimony and you’ve been up since 5 in the morning and you’re not as sharp,” chairman Scott Brown said on behalf of the board. “That’s not a benefit to the opposition and it’s not a benefit to the applicant.”
“It also not fair to rush us,” said Judy Barnett, one of more than a dozen people who spoke during Monday’s session alone. “Those are our homes.”
Brown said the board has not rushed anyone, but meeting after meeting he asks at the conclusion how many people are left to speak. That number seems to balloon at the start of the next meeting, he pointed out.
“Then we hear another two or three hours of testimony because there’s four times as many people speaking,” Brown said. “That is what we’re going to run into (again). We’re trying to move this thing steadily along as efficiently as possible.”
Once the opposition gets done giving testimony, Brown reminded the audience, there are still closing arguments left to give on both sides to be followed by deliberation and the final decision handed down by the board.
“We’re still a ways from being done,” the chairman said, “and what we can’t have is three times as many people speak and it’s just a continuous cycle. We’re trying to put an end to that continuous cycle.”
It was mentioned to limit the number who will speak at the next meeting, to which some in attendance expressed their displeasure.
Board attorney Joel Starling said he “did not feel comfortable” limiting public comments even though the board wished to expedite the process. Brown asked the board whether it wanted to “tear up the sign up sheet” as well as allow the real estate appraiser to be offered as an expert witness.
Board member Gary Mac Herring noted the additional time provided to the applicant earlier this year and said offering he was “OK with” offering the opposition the same.
“We’re ready for this to be over just as much as you all are,” said Billie Jo King.
Brown said everyone should come fully prepared in two weeks.
“It would be my goal, my wish and my ambition to at least finish the public hearing and close that at the next meeting,” he said. “Don’t come to the next meeting and say I need another week or month … either side. We want to be fair to everyone. We didn’t limit the applicant and we’re not limiting the opposition.”
The statement was greeted by applause.
‘Cannot buy harmony’
Throughout the entire process, residents opposing the mines have expressed their concerns with truck traffic and pollution, and the overall adverse effects — environmentally and aesthetically — they perceive will come from having an “industrial operation” in a rural residential area.
Witnesses for the applicant have testified that the mines would have no adverse effects on properties and their tax values, and that one could deduce from that assertion that environmental impacts would also be minimal. Any operation would also be subject to the regulations of various governing entities — the Mining Act of 1971 and numerous local, state and federal agencies.
In previous testimony, applicant Michael Blakley of Draft and Design Services asserted that the use would not substantially decrease the value of adjoining properties and was in harmony with the area. It was “wet dredging” operation, and would not bring dust with it. However, it could take two or three years to get to that point.
Many speaking Monday raised that point again, while also mentioning that comparisons to mines on North Peavine and Murphy roads — used by the applicant to note harmony already existed locally with such operations — were misleading. Those mines are much smaller and barely active, while also covering much less acreage than the proposed 330-acre venture on Five Bridge Road, they said.
Property values and harmony have been points of contention in discussions.
For a special use permit to be granted, the board had to find four things, including that the use: would not materially endanger the public health or safety; met all required conditions and specifications; would not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property; and would be in harmony with the area and in general conformity with the Sampson County Land Use Plan.
Jackson said “competent, material and substantial evidence” backed the request, and denial of the permit by the board could only come if evidence on the opposing side was equally as substantial. Lay witness testimony is “hearsay” and does not meet that standard, he has consistently noted.
Many in opposition countered that their opinions do matter, and that value is more than just “the almighty dollar.”
“You cannot buy harmony,” Carrie Cooper said. “This is not just about dollars and cents.”
The board will meet again Wednesday, Jan. 13, at 6:30 p.m.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.