UNICOI — Summers-Taylor pulled a rezoning request from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen less than a day before town leaders were supposed to vote Thursday night on the company’s proposal to build a new asphalt plant on a tract of land zoned for agricultural use.
Nonetheless, town leaders got an earful from residents when they opened up the issue for public comment.
In an email to town leaders on Wednesday from Summers-Taylor’s attorney, Tom Seeley, the company asked that the request be put on the March 15 board meeting.
Around 30 residents attended Thursday’s meeting in person, which was held at the visitor’s center, and another dozen or so joined in on Zoom.
The BMA heard comments from 17 people on the issue, none who had anything positive to say about Summers-Taylor’s plan to revive an old asphalt plant the company owns as well as expand it on land they purchased over the last several years.
The existing asphalt plant Summers-Taylor owns in Unicoi, called CAPS, is on a two-acre tract. Next to it is a 10-acre tract the company bought and further back toward the rock quarry is a two-acre tract. The company wants the entire 15 acres rezoned from agriculture to heavy manufacturing.
There was no representative from Summers-Taylor at the meeting since the request was withdrawn for consideration Thursday.
The town’s planning and zoning committee had recommended to the board that the rezoning request be denied.
Mayor Kathy Bullen was clear to residents that there would be an asphalt plant in Unicoi, but the issue would be where and how big.
“There will be an asphalt plant in the town of Unicoi,” Bullen said in a letter she wrote to town residents and read at the meeting. “The question will be where and what will it look like. I do anticipate the BMA will be considering a request at the March 15 meeting.”
When the board opened up the issue for public comment, those at the meeting didn’t hold back on their opinions of the plan.
“Rab Summers is a powerful man,” J.R. Gouge told the board, referring to the owner of Summers-Taylor. “If you all vote yes, this town will never reunite. Nobody who says they can’t smell it has been up there.”
One of the town’s newest residents, Marsha Penny, said she and her husband leased a home in Unicoi and moved there three weeks ago.
“When we were looking … we looked all over. Unicoi was our pick,” she said. “I’d hate to see this town marked off,” the list like they did Kingsport, which is long-known for a chemical smell emitted from Eastman.
Other residents said if the plant is approved, they want a stipulation in place that Summers-Taylor should be responsible for the additional wear and tear on town roads that would happen withfrom dump trucks going in and out of town all day.
One woman said her father had worked at an asphalt plant all his life in another state and died from lung issues, a brother is sick from the same type of work and she and all her siblings have asthma from growing up around that type plant
Town resident Michelle Warner told the board she remembered that residents were told in 1994 that the asphalt plant was only going to be operational until I-26 was completed.
The plant has changed hands several times, but with each sale the non-conforming status transferred. When the town of Unicoi incorporated, the plant was grandfathered in because it’s location is agricultural, not manufacturing.
Another resident told the BMA that rezoning the property would “open up pandora’s box” for the town.
Margaret Lewis, who Bullen referred to as the “Erin Brockovic of the asphalt business,” told the board she had done extensive research on the subject as well as Summers-Taylor’s operations.
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She was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company of California in 1993 after the company pumped waste water into unlined retaining ponds, which leached into the groundwater.
“They have just been cited by the state for operating that)(asphalt) plant without a permit,” she said. Lewis said the plant was granted a one-day permit to produce asphalt in December, but didn’t do it the day they were allowed. Instead, the plant operated for two days the next week.
The company was reported to TDEC, which Lewis said issued a citation.
The board allowed all residents at the meeting who wanted to speak to have their turn. Residents will have that same chance next month when the rezoning request is back on the BMA agenda.