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Unicoi Clear group expresses concerns about expansion of asphalt facility

By Richard Rourk

The Town of Unicoi’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen is scheduled to make a decision on what has become a contentious topic during the next BMA meeting on March 15, but one group of concerned citizens is voicing misgivings ahead of that meeting. The group Unicoi Clear reached out to The Erwin Record this past week to explain why its members believe that the asphalt plant could hurt the town in many ways.

“At present, the asphalt operation on this property consists of an older batch plant and assorted equipment formerly owned by the Construction Asphalt Paving Services (CAPS) company, operating on a two-acre parcel near the Unicoi Quarry currently owned by Blue Water Industries,” Unicoi County Clear member Court Lewis explained. “In 1995, zoning in the town was established and the area encompassing the two-acre CAPS parcel and surrounding land was zoned agricultural. An ordinance was also passed (#95-18) that prohibits future asphalt plants in the town. Although the two-acre tract is zoned for agriculture by the town, the county has allowed it to be considered commercial for tax purposes.”

He went on to explain that the request to rezone that property, which now totals roughly 15 acres, could come with some serious impact on the community.

“If this property is declared heavy industrial, it will open the door to all 15 acres to be used for any type of industrial use,” he said. “The only other area in Unicoi that has this M-2 classification is where Specialty Tire is located. If a heavy industrial district were to be established on the site, Summer-Taylor will have been given the freedom to do whatever they want there. They could, for example, build a concrete plant, or they could lease some of the lands to other heavy industries such as a chemical plant, or they could sell the whole property to another heavy industry in the future. The Town would have opened the door for them to expand their operations in whatever way is most profitable.”

Group members feel that if the BMA chooses to vote to zone the property as heavy industrial, residents of Unicoi could see an increase of trucks on the road.

“The double-drum mix plant is not geared to producing small batches of asphalt for paving small local roads, as the CAPS plant was,” Unicoi Clear member Margaret Lewis said. “The terms of Summers-Taylor air permit allows them to produce up to 100,000 tons of asphalt per year. For the last many years, the CAPS plant had been producing an average of 27,000 tons per year. With an operating capacity of 400 tons of asphalt, up to 20 truckloads per hour, it is geared to large-scale, continuous operation to serve major highway paving needs.”

Court Lewis suggested that with Summers-Taylor’s permit, there could be little to no oversight on regulations.

“The permit allows the company to self-monitor and self-report their asphalt production, as well as their gaseous emissions, to the State,” he said.

Unicoi Clear member Michele Warner said that she is deeply concerned about the prospect of the emissions from the proposed plant settling in the valley.

“You can look at our region and see that we are a natural valley and everything settles,” Warner said. “The air has nowhere to go.”

There is also confusion as to why Summers-Taylor has requested for the property to be zoned heavy industrial.

“An M-2 Heavy Industry District, unless closely regulated, might contain uses which cause a detrimental effect upon and might be injurious to surrounding areas,” Unicoi Clear member Judy Beckman noted. “This district would be created for heavy type industries and uses and to discourage noise, odor, dust and other objectionable conditions. Summers-Taylor doesn’t fit this description. An asphalt plant naturally produces these items.”

As the community prepares for the BMA meeting, Court Lewis said that he wants citizens to realize what is at stake.

“This is not a case of ‘asphalt plant versus no asphalt plant,” Court Lewis said. “The question at issue is whether the BMA will overturn the Town’s existing zoning and ordinance to allow a big company headquartered in another county to greatly expand the existing asphalt operations on Buffalo Mountain to maximize its profits, with little or no commensurate return to the town, and against the interests of many of its residents, whom they represent.”