Whether a special use permit that would allow the expansion of a mining operation off U.S. 421 is granted will be up to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners after the county’s planning panel recommended approval Thursday.
The S.T. Wooten mining operation was originally permitted in 2006 and later expanded in 2012. The latest request would expand the operation further on 80 acres in the 200 block of Sutton Lake Road.
The New Hanover County Planning Board voted 5-1, with member Dave Weaver voting against, to recommend approval of the request at its meeting Thursday, despite concerns about the expanded mining operation’s impact on the environment and economy that were expressed by those who attended Thursday night’s public hearing.
Planning Board Chairwoman Donna Girardot said she felt the applicant had met the four findings of fact required in a special use permit public hearing: that the project will not materially endanger public health or safety; meets all required conditions and specifications of the zoning ordinance; will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property; and will be in harmony with the surrounding area and is in general conformity of the plans of development for New Hanover County.
Planning board members didn’t receive an environmental study of the property concerning some plants and animals that might be found on part of the property until Tuesday.
Girardot said in an email Friday that those in opposition during the hearing Thursday “were only voicing ‘concerns and requests for more information’ and did not have facts or scientific data to counter or substantiate their opposition. And perhaps that was because, in my opinion, the public had not had sufficient time to review this item and the applicant's environmental report.”
The environmental survey, conducted for S.T. Wooten by WithersRavenel, found that the project would have no effect on the habitats of most of the plants and animals on the list, with the exception of the northern long-eared bat and southern hognose snake, for which the biological conclusion in the report states "may affect, not likely to adversely effect."
The SUP request required a quasi-judicial hearing “which means that we (the Planning Board) must make our decision based on the evidence presented to us at the hearing. And when the Board asked the applicant if he would be willing to continue the item in order to give the public more time to review the information/project and he said ‘no’ that he would like the Planning Board to take action on it at that meeting," Girardot said.
At that point, Girardo said, she felt the board had no choice.
“I understand the applicant [represented at the meeting by attorney Stephen Coggins of Rountree Losee LLC] was in a difficult position as well, as he had contractual obligations that did not permit him the leeway to continue the item,” she said Friday.
Mike Giles, coastal advocate at the N.C. Coastal Federation, said the lack of more information about the project was a problem, with concerns centered around potential water issues and the site’s proximity to the Duke Power coal ash pit and the New Hanover County landfill.
“Bottom line, the applicant came there without enough information to present their project in a complete and comprehensive way so people could understand” and determine whether it was a project they would support or oppose, Giles said Friday.
Coggins said Friday that S.T. Wooten is gathering information that was requested at Thursday night's hearing, including additional environmental studies, to share with the public and plans to schedule a community meeting before the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners considers the request in September.
"We’re looking forward to meeting with the various constituent groups that expressed some concerns," he said.
Coggins said S.T. Wooten offiicals do not feel the expansion of the mining operation would have a negative impact on the environment.
"S.T. Wooten’s work is critical to the solutions that are being devised to mitigate the coal ash situation there at the Sutton Plant," Coggins said Friday. "Not only are we not causing a problem, we are helping solve problmes in this area."
Ken Dull, president and owner of McKinley Building Corp., and McKinley vice president Pete Avery, also spoke against the project at the hearing.
Dull, representing owners of multiple tracts of land on U.S. 421, said he is in favor of growth and development, but he doesn't think this particular project would not benefit the county or economic development efforts.
“I think it’s great for S.T. Wooten if they can mine that land. I think it’s bad for New Hanover County because they lose future tax base and long-term jobs on that 80 acres,” Dull said Friday.
The site represents some of the last industrial land available for business development in the county, Dull pointed out.
The request is expected to be on the agenda of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meeting Sept. 6.