By DOTTY NIST
A citizen board will have the final say next month as to whether a new borrow pit will be allowed to go into operation in the Rock Hill Road area. Lee Perry’s Azland Mining Company has applied to open the pit operation on a 207-acre site on Ed Brownfield Road less than half a mile from Rock Hill Road north of Freeport. The pit is being proposed as a special exception within a large-scale agriculture land use area.
After clearing the Walton County Technical Review Committee with a favorable recommendation on May 21, the proposal was scheduled for consideration at the Walton County Zoning Board of Adjustment’s (ZBA) June 26 meeting.
A number of borrow pits, no one knows how many, are already operating in the Rock Hill Road area, and residents have been vocal in recent months in seeking relief from their impacts. They have complained often to their elected officials about traffic impacts and danger and also negative environmental impacts in their rural area. The state Department of Environmental Protection has sent warning letters to at least two pit operations in the Rock Hill Road area, noting concern that these businesses may have allegedly violated state statute with their activities.
Assurances by Perry and by Pat Blackshear, county planning and development services director, that Perry’s proposal will fully conform with compatibility and environmental standards have not put all residents at ease about the proposal. Rock Hill Road area residents have monitored the status of the proposal over several months through its consideration by the technical review committee. More than a dozen residents and property owners have submitted objections and statements of concern about the proposal.
In October 2007, following testimony by Rock Hill Road residents, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) denied a land-use change that had been requested for the purpose of expanding an existing Rock Hill Road area borrow pit owned by Tim Tindle.
In contrast with other major development proposals, Perry’s proposal will not undergo review by the Walton County Planning Commission and BCC. Instead, the decision will be that of the ZBA, with any appeal required to be made in circuit court.
Sometimes referred to as “the variance board,” the ZBA is composed of seven volunteer members, appointed by the BCC. Board members must be county residents and may not be paid or elected officials or employees of the county.
Until recently the powers and duties of the ZBA were limited to two areas: consideration and action on appeals of decisions of a county administrative official; and consideration and action on requests for variances from Walton County Land Development Code requirements, such as building and fence setback variance requests.
In summer 2007, the county adopted an ordinance amending the Walton County Land Development Code to give the ZBA an additional duty: “To consider and act upon applications for borrow pits as special exceptions from the terms of this Code, including approval of applications when they are in harmony with the purpose and intent of this Code…”
The only special exception put in place by the ordinance is that of borrow pits proposed within agricultural land use areas.
Such proposals indeed represent exceptions, since in Walton County borrow pits are not normally a permitted use in agricultural land use classifications. Instead, county code lists borrow pits as an appropriate use in areas classified as industrial.
In December 2007, the ZBA approved its first borrow pit proposal since being newly empowered by county ordinance. This was for a pit in the Mossy Head area, which met with minimal opposition from neighboring residents.
On May 21, before approving a motion for the Azland proposal to proceed, technical review committee members attached additional conditions, including a 200-foot buffer/conservation easement adjacent to Rock Hill Road, a requirement for inspections of roadways used by the pit operation by the county every three months, and a requirement that all excavated areas be revegetated with native plants within one year.
The applicant had previously agreed to surround the perimeter of the excavation area with a six-foot fence – and to revegetate each five-acre section of the excavated area prior to moving on to the next section for excavation.
The ZBA meeting at which the Azland proposal will be considered is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on June 26 and will take place at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. These board meetings are open to public attendance.