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Recycling clearinghouse nixed in Haywood

fr recyclinghearingA controversial proposal to sell a 55-acre tract in a county-owned industrial park near Canton to a private recycling sorting plant is dead.

A start-up company behind the recycling clearinghouse pulled its proposal to buy the property this week amid fierce public backlash and mounting reservations by county commissioners.

“This will bring this matter to a close,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger in a press release issued Monday.

The idea had drawn sharp criticism from the public, who questioned the merit of selling off property in the county-owned industrial park in exchange for a meager number of lower-paying jobs in the undesirable waste handling industry.

Commissioners didn’t entirely agree with the assessment. Some of the opponents’ claims were based on rampant misinformation spread by neighbors with a “not-in-my-backyard” motive to defeat the plant.

“They went around the neighborhood telling people it would be an incinerator, a waste dump, a landfill. It’s not. This is a ‘green’ industry with ‘green’ jobs,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley. “It upsets me they upset their neighbors with something that isn’t true.”

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Nonetheless county commissioners came under fire during two packed public hearings on the issue. The grassroots campaign — waged through old-fashioned community meetings and online organizing through social media — is at least partly credited with defeating the proposal.

“On paper initially it looked like a great opportunity for our county, but it became obvious that people didn’t want it and we listened,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells. “If you’d had half the people waving the flag for it, that would have been another thing, but that didn’t happen. It comes down to ‘Do you push something down people’s throat or do you step back?’ We are elected to represent the people and it was obvious they didn’t want it.”

Denny King, an opponent to the plan, credited the community with rolling up its sleeves to fight it.

“I am absolutely amazed at how people came together and worked together and did a ton of research,” said King, who helped lead the opposition movement with his wife Debbie. “The community said we can’t take a chance on this. Our way of life could be harmed by it. I appreciate the commissioners listening to us and I think they did listen and I am thankful for that.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said they were obligated to explore economic development opportunities for the county. 

“It is a priority of ours to bring in industry. I don’t think we would have done our job if we had refused to consider it,” Kirkpatrick said.

At least some opponents say they won’t hold that against the commissioners. 

“I don’t think people will hold it against them for considering it. They were trying to bring jobs in and make money for the county, but then started looking in to it more,” said Kelly Brookshire, a mom who spoke at one of the public hearings. “I’ve had ideas before that I thought was the best idea I have ever had and then got someone else’s perspective and said ‘woah, OK, that’s not such a good idea.’”

Brookshire said she is pleasantly surprised, however, that their government leaders “did the right thing.”

The biggest deal killer for the proposal was the 11th-hour revelation that the recycling clearinghouse would be exempt from paying county property taxes.

“The tax issue really throwed us a curve,” Sorrells said. 

County officials had hailed anticipated property tax revenue of $50,000 to $100,000 a year as one of the major upsides to the project.

Without the consolation prize of property tax revenue — which could have provided a recurring and reliable stream of revenue for economic development initiatives for years to come — the proposal was harder to justify.

“I was concerned about the number of jobs from the get go but the big issue was the loss of tax revenue,” Kirkpatrick said. “I want to make it clear that is the reason in probability it may not have been approved.”

While neighbors complained about increased truck traffic, smelly odors, noise, and rumors of toxic waste, Kirkpatrick saw those as red herrings. The recycling sorting facility would have been entirely enclosed, and based on others like it, noise and odor was a non-issue to him.

“I did not have a problem with the traffic. I didn’t think it would be harmful to the environment. I thought it would be a good fit for the industrial park except for not being quite as many jobs as we’d like,” Kirkpatrick said. 

Ensley said he philosophically supported the concept of the recycling facility, but the property tax exemption would have made it a tough vote for him.

“I don’t know how I would have voted, honestly. I guess I would have had to use my business sense in that the county wasn’t getting any tax revenue,” Ensley said.

On the flip side, the fact the state passed a law in 2008 exempting recycling facilities from property taxes is telling, Ensley said. It shows recycling is an industry the state wants to see more of and is offering incentives to encourage them.

“As time goes on we will see much more of this. When we looked at this, we thought this could be a good thing for Haywood County to be on the forefront of,” Ensley said.

Opponents to the plan questioned how trucking in hundreds of tons of waste to be sorted on automated machinery was a green industry.

“We know we need jobs in this county but we just believe we need clean jobs,” King said.

As part of the county’s vetting process of the proposal, Sorrells and Ensley took a trip to Kansas to see a recycling sorting facility in action that uses the same kind of equipment as the one that was proposed here. They were both impressed.

It had none of the negative connotations — dirty, smelly, noisy, gross — that opponents had feared it would.

Sorrells said he wondered if the success of the recycling sorting plant in Kansas could have been replicated here, however. To be viable, the plant needs a robust stream of recyclables to feed it, and Sorrells didn’t know if the people here would have the buy-in to start recycling more.

“When we came back, I listened very intently to the public, to the community, and it became very clear to me that we just aren’t there,” said Sorrells.

But for Ensley, one of Haywood County’s most stalwart recyclers, it’s something society should get on board with. He embraced a life shift several years ago from tossing most of his waste to recycling nearly everything.

“I cut my number of trash from six bags a week to one or two bags a week going to the landfill. I even recycle toilet paper rolls. It is really just changing the way you dispose of your trash,” Ensley said.

But there’s a missing piece of the puzzle: a commodity market for recyclables at the end of the line. And that’s what the private recycling sorting facility offered.  

“It is a great idea. It is very much needed,” Ensley said.

Kirkpatrick said while the county won’t be selling its land in the industrial park to the venture, maybe there would be a feasible location for it elsewhere on private land.

“I think it would be beneficial somewhere in the county,” Kirkpatrick said.

As for the industrial park site, the county isn’t keen to let it lie fallow in the name of protecting the community’s rural character.

Swanger said the county will continue “to aggressively market the Beaverdam Industrial Park in an effort to create jobs for Haywood County.”

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