The Transylvania Times -

By Eric Crews
Staff Writer 

Group: Work Not Finished - Brevard NC

 

Last updated 12/30/2013 at 9:26am



After organizing in opposition to a proposed biomass project in Penrose, members of People For Clean Mountains say their work is not yet complete.

“The first goal of People For Clean Mountains was to stop the biomass burner,” said Ned Doyle, a member of the group. “But the second was to work for ways for sustainable, economic development in the county. In a lot of ways, People For Clean Mountains’ job is only half way done. For all intents and purposes, it looks like stopping the biomass burner was successful. The next step is looking at job creation, waste diversion, looking at landfill usage and other things that People For Clean Mountains has in the hopper, and all of it is for positive economic development in the county.

“If People For Clean Mountains is anything, it’s an economic development organization.”

The group formed in the days and weeks after the announcement of the proposed biomass project in Penrose last March when Nick Friedman, owner of Duck Pond Pottery, along with others in the community, organized a Facebook page that quickly ballooned in growth.

Currently, the Transylvania County Biomass Information Exchange, a Facebook group dedicated to their cause, has more than 850 members.

Doyle believes their group’s success is part of a larger citizen movement happening across the world as people come to understand the implications of using biomass for electricity, but he said he also believes the local movement to oppose the project gathered steam so quickly largely because of the project itself.

“I think the reason it came together so quickly is because it was such an outrageously bad idea on so many levels that there was something for everyone to be concerned about,” he said. “This was an equal opportunity source of concern no matter where you came from, whether it was jobs, the economy, environmental issues, air quality, water quality…you go down the list and there was nothing left to be challenged so people from across the spectrum said, ‘Wait a minute, we need to look at this more closely.’

“The more closely it was looked at the less viable of an option it was for all of those reasons.”

While the group invested a lot of energy into fighting the biomass project, Doyle said he is certainly not opposed to seeing other types of businesses move into the area.

“No one in the group is anti-business,” he said. “We want to see economic development, but economic development that is a fit for the county that will really be a positive for the county, not just some kind of industry giveaway. There have been too many lessons learned by too many communities that this particular idea of burning biomass just does not work economically or environmentally and it certainly doesn’t make any sense in terms of producing energy.”

Doyle said there are a lot of different types of businesses that could be a good fit for that area, but said he would like to see a high impact land use ordinance implemented to control or provide some type of guidance on the type of businesses that would be located there.

“I think it is safe to say there are a whole lot of businesses that would be welcome compared to the handful that wouldn’t be,” he said.

Challenges

For Mark Burrows, the director of the county’s economic development efforts, the opposition to the proposed project proved to be an eye-opening experience that he believes can help him in his future efforts to attract economic development in the county.

One of the biggest challenges he faced with the biomass project was the changing nature of the project itself.

At first, Burrows said he believed the project would be a great fit for the county and met many of the goals they identified in their 2010-2012 strategic plan.

“This was a project that, as initiated, fit well with the county’s economic development strategic plan,” he said. “From my perspective, the initial project we had was a really great manufacturing economic project for Transylvania County. I think it fit a lot of the criteria we’ve been looking for in terms of high tech, looking at manufacturing, and looking at alternative fuels, specifically biodiesel. But by the time the developers announced the project they had changed the project significantly.”

Initially, the proposed project would have used woody biomass, including railroad ties and other waste materials, to generate biofuels.

But by the time the project’s developers submitted applications to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it had been changed to one that would have used municipal solid waste to produce biofuels that would then be burned onsite to produce electricity.

“From that point, it was really a challenge to try and help the community understand what the initial proposal was and what they were actually proposing,” Burrows recalled.

Burrows said he followed along on the People For Clean Mountains’ Facebook page and watched as the group’s efforts gathered momentum.

“For me, one of the biggest lessons learned on this was how significant social media is in terms of helping to communicate messages,” Burrows said. “People For Clean Mountains and other interested groups were very effective in organizing an outreach that asked if this is what they really wanted.”

At this point, Burrows said that question of what the county wants moving forward is still the question that needs to be addressed.

“The county is at a point right now where there are a number of people who want jobs and investment,” he said. “I think most people want that. But there are also a number of people who are very content to say, ‘We have what we need right now, and we don’t want to see any more manufacturing.’

“I think this is a great example of a community in transition trying to figure out where it wants to be in five to 10 years from a planning, economic development and community development perspectives. It’s really an interesting case study of where Transylvania County wants to go.”

Dick Grey, owner of Genie Products and member of the county’s Economic Development Advisory board, agreed with Burrows’ assessment.

“We’re going through a visioning process now and it would be nice to know what the entire community thinks of having or not having industry here in the county,” Grey said. “People of the county have to ask themselves what they really want. Do they want good paying jobs, which is what manufacturing can bring to the community? This community was at one point fairly wealthy with a lot of high paying, blue collar jobs. But we’ve lost all that, and there are just a handful of us who are in manufacturing anymore, but we certainly don’t make up the losses of Ecusta, DuPont or Coats (of America).”

Grey recalled viewing the results of a survey conducted during the county’s 150th anniversary, also known as the sesquicentennial, as being largely in favor of having more industry in the county.

“Most of the comments were that we need good jobs, we need manufacturing,” he said. “Some of the top concerns of citizens were being able to have some type of industry here that would pay good wages and provide a livelihood for people.

“I think we have a group of people who are focused on not having industry here versus a group of people who do want industry here. We need to find out what the pulse of the entire county is.”

Grey said that while he believed it was still too early to say what type of an environmental impact the proposed biomass project would have had because of the lack of information provided by developers, he said he does know that it is possible to have light manufacturing industries with high paying jobs that don’t produce emissions or pollution of any kind.

He pointed to his own business, as well as many of the other businesses operating in Transylvania County as examples.

“We are good stewards of the area that we live in,” he said. “We don’t produce any pollution at all.”

Grey is optimistic there could be other businesses like his own that would want to move to the area because of the many positive attributes the county has to offer.

Impact

From an economic development standpoint, Burrows doesn’t believe the project’s failure in the county will have a significant economic impact on the county.

“I think that with the initial proposal we would have seen a much higher investment with more jobs created,” he said. “But the project that was being proposed at the end was a smaller dollar amount of investment and fewer jobs and the wages of those jobs weren’t as great as we were initially looking at. To me, it was a loss of a potential manufacturing company that fit our strategic plan and would have brought investment and creation of jobs, but in the long term I don’t think it will have that big of an impact.”

Burrows said his job will continue to be to seek ing out businesses that would likely be a good fit for the county, as identified in the strategic plan. As he does, he doubts that many businesses that could be interested in the county would even be aware of the opposition the biomass project faced.

One of the next steps – and one that Burrows said will be an important part of the process moving forward – is the development of a high impact land use ordinance or alternative.

Burrows said making it easier for prospective businesses to move to the area by reducing their risks and challenges is important.

“Part of that is knowing how they can use their property without the threat of litigation or some group that is going to lobby against you,” he said. “In an area that has zoning that sets the ground rules, that reduces a large level of that risk.”

Grey agreed that reducing the potential challenges a business might face when relocating to the area could certainly make the county more business friendly.

“I view the fact that any business that wants to establish a subsidiary here or a new company here is obviously going to look at what the hurdles of putting an operation here are,” he said. “The easier that you can make it in order to clear those hurdles, and that’s not only protest groups, but certainly regulations and making sure the infrastructure is there for them and the land is there for them… Once a business makes a decision to move to an area, they don’t want to fight any battles,” he said. “I view the fact that anything that inhibits or slows down the move is not a good thing for Transylvania County.”

Burrows said that if an Ecusta or DuPont wanted to come back to the county, they would likely run into similar opposition as the biomass project.

“I think we have two types of people,” he said. “We’ve got some that would say, ‘Yes, we need that.’ But we have others who would be very wary and say, ‘We don’t want that. It’s more traffic, potential for pollution, noise, light and odors…’

“We’re at this really interesting period of our history in trying to figure out where we want to go and how we help promote an opportunity for jobs and new investment,” he said. “The county can’t provide, but we can help create the atmosphere for that.”

“Some people are going to say this is unfortunate, others are going to say it is a victory,” he said. “I think it is just fact. Now the challenge is finding out if there is something else that, from a manufacturing standpoint, could fit on that piece of property.”

In the future, Doyle said People For Clean Mountain’s role could be in helping to develop alternative energy that reduces the county’s reliance on coal and fossil fuels.

While the biomass project proposed to partially eliminate the need for those types of fuel on a small scale by producing up to four megawatts of electricity in its first phase, Doyle said exchanging fossil fuels like coal and oil for garbage and biomass is not the solution.

“In a certain sense, whether we are burning the forests, coal or oil, we are still burning things to create electricity,” he said. “From a technological sense, there is not an advantage in burning more stuff when we don’t need to. We’re only creating more environmental issues. It is problematic that we are getting our coal from mountain top removal mining that is destroying the mountains as a feed source. The answer to getting off of fossil fuels is not finding something else to burn, but finding cleaner, sustainable ways to generate the electricity we actually need.”

One way to do that and the one that appears most economically viable at this point is solar, Doyle said. But conserving the electricity currently used in the county by weatherizing homes with better insulation, using more efficient appliances and other energy-saving measures would also be an important step.

People For Clean Mountains’ efforts to stop the biomass project gained support from a large number of county residents and Doyle said he is optimistic the group can keep some of those same people engaged on other issues in the future while also working to help out however they can in shaping the high impact land use ordinance.

“The idea of battling to save your valley is a lot more blood boiling than sitting in a land use planning meeting,” Doyle said. “The vast majority of people are still interested in it, but it is hard to rally around paper work and zoning compared to watching the valley fill with garbage smoke.”

 
 

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