Canton passes industrial development moratorium aimed at Pactiv
After closing its paper mill in Canton early last month, Pactiv Evergreen is reportedly now engaged in discussions with potential purchasers or developers about the future of the site.
Town leaders, however, haven’t been invited to participate in those discussions — forcing the governing board to take action to ensure it has a seat at the table.
“In the local government toolbox, there are several tools that can be used in situations like this to help be part of the conversation about what is happening inside your city limits. One is eminent domain, for example,” said Mayor Zeb Smathers. “The other is a moratorium.”
Pactiv Evergreen stunned Western North Carolina back in March, when in a series of closed-door meetings with employees it announced that it would shutter the 115-year-old mill within three months, resulting in the loss of about 1,000 jobs.
Smathers and Haywood County officials weren’t given a heads up, nor was the mayor of an Ohio town where Pactiv also cut jobs. Pactiv didn’t even inform its health insurance provider, initiating a health care coverage crisis for soon-to-be unemployed workers.
Now, with reports that Pactiv is looking to offload the massive 185-acre parcel that straddles the Pigeon River, Canton wants to be sure it isn’t again blindsided by the $6 billion multinational corporation.
“I have it on good authority that those conversations are happening, and again, we’ve learned this through secondary parties,” Smathers said. “With this moratorium, we will be part of the conversation.”
On July 13, the Canton Board of Aldermen/women unanimously passed a 365-day moratorium on all development approvals within the light industrial and heavy industrial zoning districts.
“What this does in a specific sense is basically say to Evergreen and to any developer or anyone involved with Evergreen is that the Town of Canton and her citizens are going to be part of this conversation,” Smathers said.
The moratorium only affects industrial zoning categories, and only in two places — the mill campus, and an area north of town in Beaverdam adjacent to and just south of Interstate 40. Currently, there is no industrial development within the moratorium area.
Residential, town center, general commercial, neighborhood commercial and highway commercial district developments remain subject to all normal approval protocols and are not affected by the moratorium.
“It’s very limited,” Smathers said. “This should not prevent or prohibit any small business anywhere outside of those industrial zones from coming out here,” said Smathers. “And also at any given moment, for the right situation, we can lift this.”
As passed, the ordinance states that elected officials in Canton have “become concerned that uses which are incompatible with the general business district and nearby residential neighborhoods will nonetheless end up locating there” and that such areas “are no longer suitable for such uses or consistent with the public health and safety of the citizens of the town in Canton.”
One such use that’s been making headlines across the region is cryptocurrency mining operations, which consume tremendous amounts of power and can be quite noisy.
“If any company, such as a Bitcoin mining company — which I would be against — was able to purchase or have control of this project, at that point, our toolbox becomes limited,” Smathers said. “This is a very proactive approach to control the conversation.”
From a larger perspective, town administrators will use the 365-day moratorium to study the town’s land development practices as a whole, determining what uses are most consistent with the mill campus, which is sandwiched between the revitalized downtown core and nearby residential areas. The ordinance contains a detailed timeline of relevant milestones to keep the study on track.
The moratorium will expire on July 13, 2024, or once the town passes a zoning ordinance amendment that establishes development-appropriate criteria for a permitting process including environmental studies, setbacks, screening and requirements — whichever comes first.
In addition to the option of eminent domain, the ordinance states that the town’s only other alternatives were to do nothing and allow applications based on zoning regulations that pre-date the mill’s closing by as much as 55 years, or conducting the study while undesirable uses continue to proliferate.
“As we build that hometown of tomorrow, what this does is help us envision what that hometown is going to look like and how we can go about making it a reality,” Smathers said.
Smathers wasn’t present for the July 13 meeting due to family commitments, but the board was just as adamant about the need for the moratorium.
“They [Pactiv Evergreen] have to include us in the process, to make sure that we are protecting the town and by extension all the people and residents in the town, to make sure Evergreen doesn’t act in a negative way,” said Alderman Tim Shepard. “We are pro-business and we want to see the mill property being used, but we also want to make sure it’s not something we have no say in.”
Alderman Ralph Hamlett, a Canton native whose father served as the town’s police chief, gave a lengthy speech in support of the moratorium.
“Growing up in Canton, there was a mythology ... speak no evil about the mill. Because, we were told, the livelihood of Canton depends on the mill,” Hamlett said. “The threat was there that if we say too much, the mill’s gonna close. But guess what? The mill closed ... Now, we’re faced with a choice. We’ve learned a lesson about Evergreen closing. Canton is going to outlast the likes of Evergreen. At this point in time, we can think about the safety of our citizenry, we can think about the quality of life for all of us, and we as a board are faced with a choice, the choice of expediency or the choice of doing what is right. As for me, I’m going to do what’s right.”
Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull, who retired from the mill after three decades, said she wanted better for Canton.
“I’m probably the only person in this room who ever worked at the mill, and I’m the union secretary,” Mull said. “We have to do this. We have no choice.”
Carl Cortright, who serves on the town’s planning board, said the moratorium was a pause, not a stop sign.
Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) was also in attendance at the July 13 meeting, saying he was there to listen, but Hardister asked a number of questions about the site’s intended use as well as the wastewater treatment facility. Hardister currently serves as House majority whip and vice chair of appropriations, but is running for North Carolina Labor Commissioner in 2024.
Like Smathers, Alderwoman Kristina Proctor was also out of town for the meeting, but said she would have voted for the moratorium — which she called bold, responsible and proactive.
“It signifies our commitment to prioritizing the interests of our town and its citizens in three specific ways,” said Proctor. “Firstly, as a community, we deserve to have a voice in the discussions regarding the future purpose of this property. It is crucial that we are included in the decision-making process, allowing us to contribute our perspectives and insights. Secondly, it is worth noting that the property is situated on a floodplain. Hence, it is imperative that we collaborate to implement effective measures for remediation and enhance its resilience against future flooding events. Lastly, given that the paper mill operated on this site for a century, it is essential to acknowledge that while environmental practices have improved over the past few decades, the complete extent of the environmental situation on the property remains uncertain. Therefore, environmental remediation must be a top priority in order to address any potential environmental challenges.”