JACKSON – Northampton’s Board of Commissioners were unanimous in their decision. They voted here Tuesday night to deny Vista Green LLC’s request to rezone a parcel of land which had been a hot-button topic of discussion for over a year.
The land in question is an 852-acre plot located on High Bridge Road northeast of Seaboard near Highway 186. Vista Green originally stated they purchased the land in order to create a landfill for coal combustion residuals, more commonly referred to as “coal ash.” In order to use the land with that intent, Vista Green would first need approval to rezone the land from Agricultural-Residential (AR) to Heavy Industrial (HI), and then they would need to obtain a special use permit to allow a landfill on the site.
In August, the Northampton Planning Board held a public hearing on the proposed rezoning. Their recommendation to the Board of Commissioners was to deny the rezoning because they found it “inconsistent with the comprehensive land use plan for Northampton County and is not reasonable or in the public interest.”
The final decision came down to the County Commissioners. Along with the Planning Board’s recommendation, they heard arguments for and against the proposed rezoning at a special meeting held Tuesday at the Cultural and Wellness Center in Jackson.
The room was completely full Tuesday evening, and the majority of people in attendance held “no coal ash” fans or wore t-shirts, hats, or buttons proclaiming the same message. A few even brought homemade signs to show their position on the matter.
Much of the presentations were similar to what they argued at the earlier Planning Board meeting. Those in favor of rezoning emphasized the economic benefits the site could bring to the county, while those opposed talked about the health and environmental hazards of coal ash.
Thomas Terrell, the lawyer representing Vista Green, repeatedly stated throughout his presentation that coal ash shouldn’t be considered as a factor in the rezoning decision. He argued the focus should be on the broad range of uses allowed on a HI-zoned site, and discussion about a coal ash landfill can be made at a special use permit hearing later.
“If you turn them (Vista Green) down for coal ash at the special use permit stage, you still have an 852-acre site with transportation and other qualities to die for right here in Northampton County,” Terrell stated.
The lawyer continued to focus on the potential benefits of the site. He talked about easy access through nearby highways and the CSX railway which runs along the edge of the property. He mentioned the lack of streams and wetlands and environmental concerns that would stall industrial development. He noted the sparse population nearby.
“When your zoning ordinance was enacted, it was so long ago, it listed uses that you don’t even have in your county anymore, and it did not list uses that today are used everywhere or were even heard of back then,” Terrell continued. “You don’t have a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan is future-looking.”
The only other speaker in support of Vista Green’s request was C.J. Mann, a distribution manager in the company and son of one the company’s owners.
“We want to be a great corporate partner with Northampton County. We want to be a great neighbor with Northampton County. We want to be able to create various industries. We want to create jobs and build a tax base in this county,” Mann said after stating he understood the public concerns about coal ash.
If their original goal of building the coal ash landfill isn’t accepted, he said the company wanted to look to developing the site for other industries. He asked the commissioners to be openminded and reminded them of Vista Green’s transparency throughout the whole rezoning process.
A total of 17 people spoke during the 30 minutes allotted for the opposition side. Much of the discussion still centered on coal ash.
“I’m going to focus on the use that Vista Green has talked about for almost two years,” said Al Kwasikpui. “That’s been coal ash. We haven’t heard anything about all these other uses.”
“I know that this is not about coal ash, but Vista Green’s website still says it is,” added Debbie Davis when she spoke.
Many speakers pointed out the potential harmful effects coal ash might have on people and the land. They noted the components of coal ash included substances such as arsenic, lead, chromium, cadmium, and more. Others pointed out negative impacts on farm land and water sources if the landfill began to leak out and contaminate the surrounding areas.
Belinda Joyner stated it plainly, saying, “That land will become a cesspool. We don’t have the opportunity to get up and move because something comes in our community that can kill us.”
“Bringing in heavy industry does not complement the surrounding landscape despite what Vista Green claims,” said Davis after speaking about the families which live around the site. “There will be train cars and heavy equipment, noise and dust and bright lights, not to mention the possibility of harmful effects from the high volume of coal ash itself.”
The last speaker for the opposition was Helen Varnadoe, who unlike many of the previous speakers, noted she was not originally from Northampton County but had lived here for 20 years.
“I could choose to live anywhere, but I came here because I wanted clean air. I wanted countryside. I wanted sunshine. I did not want to be in the city,” she said, adding that she didn’t want coal ash or anything similar in her backyard.
After hearing both sides, the commissioners didn’t voice any questions about the rezoning.
Commissioner Fannie Greene motioned for the Board to adopt a statement rejecting the rezoning request, “because it is inconsistent with the county zoning ordinance and zoning map which together serve as a comprehensive land use plan for Northampton County.”
She listed these inconsistencies which included the surrounding properties being AR-zoned, the size of the site would make HI the predominate zoning in the area which could result in significant change, and the potential for adverse secondary impact would outweigh the public benefit.
Commissioner Chester Deloatch seconded the motion. The vote was unanimously in favor.
The crowd cheered afterwards, waving their “no coal ash” signs high in the air.