Dean Swaim, the stern chairman of the Yadkin County Planning Board, stifled an outburst with a whack of his gavel.
“You will respect the board,” he told the roughly 200 people who had just released a collective groan.
A vote was pending to rezone land for a controversial rock quarry, proposed for a 498-acre tract in Hamptonville — and it didn’t appear to be going the residents’ way.
The proposed quarry has galvanized this close-knit community of 6,100 people since last winter. That’s when Jack Mitchell, CEO of Synergy Materials, began poking holes in farmland off Three Oaks Road. At the time, Mitchell refused to disclose what he was looking for or what he had found, saying only that his company was conducting “due diligence.”
Earlier this year, Mitchell finally revealed his plan. The proposed Three Oaks Quarry would be built on farmland owned by former State Rep. Wilma Sherrill, a Republican who once represented Buncombe County. About 320 of the nearly 500 acres would be devoted to mining, including interior roads. The pit itself would encompass roughly 61 acres, since reduced to 50 acres. The balance of the property would be buffer.
The residents’ concerns are many: Dust, blasting noise, an extra 272 daily truck trips on Highway 21, the main drag for teenagers from nearby Starmount High. Residents are worried about potential harm to water wells and downstream drinking water supplies, foundation damage to their homes, several of which abut the mining property. West Yadkin Elementary School, with 450 students, is just 800 feet from mining company’s property line.
And so began a months’-long game of chess: Residents strategized, packed a gymnasium for a community meeting, took to social media, raised funds by selling T-shirts and raffling a 9mm handgun. They petitioned their elected officials, and even retained a renowned hydrogeologist, Richard Spruill, whom Synergy had sought to hire.
After six months of organizing, nearly everyone in Hamptonville opposed the quarry, as did the school board and Yadkin County Schools superintendent. And they twice showed up en masse before the planning board, packing the room in April and again Monday night.
“I don’t want this in my community,” said Sam Crews, vice-chairman of the Yadkin County School Board in April. The district owns land near the mine property, and because of its proximity could not expand, he said. “Yadkinville County is special, and we want to keep it that way.”
Danny Steelman, whose property is adjacent to the mining acreage, reminded the planning board of a recent vote rejecting a similar rezoning for a small manufacturing facility near a high school. “We set precedents,” Steelman said Monday night.
He emphasized the disappearance of farmland in Yadkin County, which the mining property’s current zoning designation is supposed to protect. Three mines already operate in the county, and “we don’t need more rock,” Steelman said.
As for Mitchell, he enlisted Tom Terrell, the state’s go-to attorney for mining companies. (He also represents many solar farm developers.) Terrell and Mitchell buried the planning board in a forest’s worth of paper and notebooks as thick as a cake. They assembled their team of hired and expensive guns: mining engineers and hydrogeologists from out-of state, albeit some of them not licensed to practice in North Carolina; traffic analysts, property appraisers; and Cathy Litscher, an environmental scientist from Florida. She told the board in April “wildlife will move” if displaced by the mine. “If they can’t move …” she said, but never answered her own thought.
They ran Facebook ads and posted on Instagram the mine’s purported benefits: tax revenue for the county and cheaper construction costs.
The mining company did offer 38 conditions to address residents’ outcry, although these types of concessions are routine.
“We are not unmindful of fears and concerns,” Terrell told the board. The company will build a 12-foot berm between the mining property and the elementary school, topped with tall evergreen trees. Blasting would be limited to three to four times per month, and only from 3:30 to 5 p.m. (However, residents noted that after-school activities, including sports, can last as late as 9 p.m.) Blasting would be muffled, more akin to the sound of “distant thunder,” Terrell said.
Mitchell said he would donate land to NC Department of Transportation to straighten a dangerous curve along Highway 21, as well as give the state stone to build and widen the road.
He offered a 10-cent per ton royalty to the school system, which Carolyn Tolbert, who lives nearby, called “a bribe.”
Tolbert saw her brother Joel for the last time on May 24, 1970. It was after Sunday dinner on a hot and sultry Memorial Day weekend, when the afternoon temperatures reached nearly 90 degrees.
A standout football player at Starmount High School who wore Number 73, “Joel walked out the front door,” said Tolbert, a lifelong Hamptonville resident. “He said he was going for a swim.”
As he left, Tolbert remembers her mother telling Joel, “Stay away from the rock quarry.”
Joel and his friend Martin jumped into the quarry’s cool, crisp water. They both disappeared. Other boys called for help. “Everybody was up there trying to find the bodies,” Tolbert said.
The next evening firefighters pulled the boys’ bodies from the water: Joel at 6:45 and Martin at 8:30.
The spent quarry is still full of water, but is now fenced in. Terrell told the planning board the new quarry would be surrounded by an 8-foot fence after mining is complete.
Brad Storie, a lifelong Yadkinville resident, worked in the school system for 38 years. A school principal, he was a pallbearer at Joel’s funeral in 1970. “There’s no way, if you search your soul and mind, to say a mine should be next to a school,” he told the board earlier this year.
Storie is also concerned about the three streams on the property that feed tributaries to Lake Hampton. “We borrowed $6 million from the federal government so it could be our future water source,” Storie said.
Finally, after six anxious months, the planning board was ready to vote. Board chairman Swaim rubbed his brow as if in pain.
The vote: 3 to 2 in favor of the rezoning for the mine. Swaim voted no, as did Steve Brown. The yeses: Jerry Hutchens, Teresa Swain and Resha Peregrino-Brimah.
The crowd gasped. Some people approached the dais and glared. Outside, a man heckled Swain as she walked to her car. A sheriff’s deputy stood nearby.
The planning board’s vote is only a recommendation; the issue now proceeds to the Yadkin County Commission, which could vote as early as July 18. If the commission approves the proposal, it would move on to state Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources, also known as DEMLR. That process can take several years. Rarely does DEMLR reject an application.