Last updated: September 18. 2013 4:39PM - 2315 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentSampson County Board of Commissioners chairman Billy Lockamy, left, and Commissioner Albert Kirby both spoke about the need to bring more jobs to Sampson, although they each took different sides in ultimately approving incentives for Enviva Tuesday to locate a wood pellet production plant here.
Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentSampson County Board of Commissioners chairman Billy Lockamy, left, and Commissioner Albert Kirby both spoke about the need to bring more jobs to Sampson, although they each took different sides in ultimately approving incentives for Enviva Tuesday to locate a wood pellet production plant here.
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The county has agreed to provide incentives to Enviva Pellets Sampson LLC to locate in northern Sampson, which puts it in the running for a wood-pellet plant that would bring about $100 million in taxable investment, 79 direct jobs and a much-needed boost to the local economy.

Following a 45-minute closed session Tuesday, the Sampson Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the incentive agreement for Enviva, which proposes to develop and construct a 500,000 metric ton wood pellet production facility, which would utilize wood biomass feedstock from the region.

Commissioner Jefferson Strickland quickly voted to approve the agreement with an amendment, read by county attorney Annette Starling. She said the county would agree to an additional grant-back incentive totaling $176,874 for the construction of gas lines, contingent on the company signing a contract to buy gas from Piedmont Natural Gas and documentation verifying the amount was spent for gas line construction.

Commissioner Harry Parker seconded Strickland’s motion.

“We are in a tough situation here,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby. “We just discovered that one of the longtime businesses in the county, Martin’s Meats, is going out of business so that will be close to 180 jobs that will be gone (see related story). Jobs are the thing we are seeking, the thing we need in Sampson County desperately.”

Kirby said he was torn between weighing the need for tax base and citizen concerns of potential pollutants any industry would bring.

“Members in my constituency are concerned about the potential health hazard that would be associated with any industry that comes here,” he said. “This situation is different from what the Fibrowatt situation was, in that Fibrowatt was an industry that had documented evidence of particulate in the air that was causing harmful things, in my opinion. I’ve been told Enviva produces just steam, but there was a comment from one of the Enviva representatives that there was some particulate in it.”

Kirby has inquired as to the level of particulate matter and the effect it would have on surrounding farmers and residents before he could vote either way.

“That being said, we cannot overlook the possibility of bringing nearly 100 direct jobs and 300 indirect jobs to Sampson County,” said Kirby. “This is an opportunity for that. My vote may be ‘no’ against this, but it’s no because I don’t know what the answer is about the particulates. I am not against getting jobs into Sampson County.”

Economic Developer John Swope presented performance-based incentives for Enviva’s location to I-40, Exit 355, at the Board of Commissioners regular meeting last week, bringing a standing room-only crowd, with numerous loggers, truckers and foresters touting the project, its location to Sampson and the economic boon it would bring to industry locally. Still others warned again the plant’s adverse environmental and economic effects.

The project would bring an investment of between $95 million $117 million in taxable property, as well as 79 direct jobs at an average salary of $37,000. Enviva has estimated another 130 indirect jobs in the forest supply and logistics chain, as well as 300 contractor and project crew jobs during construction. Enviva also estimated about $35 million in purchases will be made in the region, primarily in the logging and forestry industry.

State logging businesses are expected to experience an annual revenue increase of $23.4 million and 81 new jobs as a result, Swope said. He called it an “impact project” that would have benefits to Sampson as well as surrounding counties.

Close to a dozen loggers, truckers and forestry representatives noted the tremendous opportunity Sampson had to provide an economic boost for the county and local industry during a public hearing last week. However, concerned citizens spoke in opposition of Enviva, saying the company’s other plants pollutants in Ahoskie and Northampton County have wreaked havoc on residents and their properties, pointing to the adverse effects the plant could bring to human health and through the deforestation.

Enviva representatives have stood by their practices, noting growing pains but issues that are resolved after they are discovered. There will be an approximately 90-foot stack, which will emit a steady plume of steam produced by moisture coming off the wood during the drying process. There are “very stringent” regulations as to how much particulate matter can be contained in the process, and Enviva falls far below those thresholds, they said.

Swope noted the nearly $1.5 million in water extension grants in place toward bringing water infrastructure to I-40 at Exit 355, leaving the county to pay less than $40,000 “out of pocket” in matching funds for the grants.

In June, the Sampson Board of Commissioners approved providing a 12-month option to Enviva Holdings LP at a cost of $100 for the 180-acre stretch at I-40 Exit 355. The incentive agreement states that 50 percent of the county property taxes paid by the company for the proposed facility would be returned through performance-based grant-back incentives, meaning the company would receive direct incentives of $2,445,854, half the taxes it would have to pay in the first 10 years.

County tax revenues would equal $4.9 million for the first 10 years, which would amount to between $1.5 million and $1.7 million after the proposed grant-backs and other incentives, including $523,425 in site development costs to be reimbursed to the company, are factored in. On Tuesday, the county also added the gas line amendment.

“This does not mean the plant is coming,” said board chairman Billy Lockamy. “We are in competition with two other counties and I hope our incentives look well enough that they will come. We just found out that, by the close of the day, we’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost tax revenues and water bills (with Martin’s Meats closing). Replacing 175 or 180 jobs, this is just a start.”

Commissioners have heard the concerns of the community, and they are shared among the board, Lockamy said. Still, some tax revenue is needed to keep the county running, he said. If the project moves forward, Enviva officials have expressed their intention with bringing the plant online during the first half of 2015.

“Everybody wants these services that the county tries to provide, but we have to pay for them one way or another,” said Lockamy. “I hope we get (the plant). We have drawn a line in the sand. They want more and more and this is it, so we might not get it. But we’re trying. We just cannot sit here and pass up an opportunity to get jobs in this county.”

The incentive agreement was approved in a 4-1 vote, with Kirby dissenting.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.

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