By DOTTY NIST
Despite heated opposition by Rock Hill Road area residents, a new sand pit operation was approved for their vicinity on Aug. 28.
On that evening, after testimony and discussion lasting approximately four hours, the Walton County Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) approved the proposal, known as Azland Borrow Pit.
Through a new procedure set up by ordinance in summer 2007, consideration of the proposal was the duty of this county-appointed citizen board rather than county commissioners. The pit was under consideration as a special exception within an agricultural land use area. Normally borrow pits are allowed only in industrial land use areas in Walton County.
This was the second borrow pit proposal to go before the ZBA.
Board attorney Lori Bytell instructed board members that best management practices (BMPs) approved by county commissioners regarding borrow pits were not binding on this application, since the BMPs were approved after the December 2007 submittal of the Azland application.
George Ralph Miller, representing applicant Lee Perry in this proposal for a 207-acre parcel on Ed Brown Field Road, stated that he believes Perry has “bent over backwards” to comply with the suggestions of county staff regarding the proposal.
Engineering representative Ryan Christensen of Connelly & Wicker commented that the applicant had agreed to a 50-foot buffer around all of the property, a 200-foot conservation easement along Rock Hill Road, a 120-foot right-of-way donation for Rock Hill Road, a 30-foot dedication of additional right-of-way for Ed Brownfield Road, and 50-foot buffers from wetlands on the property.
He added that there has been an agreement to construct the pit in five-acre cells, with each cell to be reclaimed before starting digging on another.
Pat Blackshear, county planning and development services director, commented that the proposal is for the mining operation to take place only on 67 acres of the 207-acre property. A separate application and public hearings would be required in order to enlarge the operation, she said.
Rock Hill Road area resident Gayl Brotherton raised several objections on behalf of community opponents of the proposal, including its consideration as a special exception in an agricultural land use area.
She and other residents have argued that a commercial pit operation is not analogous to the type of borrow pit that is appropriate in agricultural areas, where soil is dug and moved from one part of a property to another for farming purposes.
Brotherton also made the argument that county commissioners do not have the ability to delegate their function of major development review to an unelected board such as the ZBA.
“There are both legal mines and illegal mines occurring in Walton County,” commented Mark Madamba, another neighboring resident.
“We don’t mind mines, we just don’t want them in our back and front yards,” he said.
He said his “biggest heartache” with the proposal is the additional dump trucks that it will bring to the neighborhood. He estimated that well over 200 sand and dirt removal operations are already ongoing in the vicinity of Rock Hill Road.
“This project is not compatible with the neighborhood whatsoever,” Madamba asserted.
Jillian Wolfe, an area resident since 1969, presented photos showing the environmental impacts that, she explained, other borrow pits near Rock Hill Road have had on creeks. “It is destruction, it has no place in a neighborhood,” she said.
Eileen West was among those who raised safety concerns in connection with mining operations. She recalled that a child had died in DeFuniak Springs in an abandoned pit that had not been reclaimed. She also testified that there are 100 loaded dump trucks already coming off Rock Hill Road every day, posing a danger to citizens.
Blackshear announced that this and possibly one other borrow pit application would be the last to be heard by the ZBA, and that special exceptions for borrow pits in agricultural land use areas will cease through adoption of an ordinance.
“The process is going to change because of the public outcry about borrow pits versus mines,” she said.
“They will be redefined as mines,” she said of the commercial pits.
Blackshear added that the new Land Development Code language that will be going before commissioners in two weeks will specify that “mining can be done only in industrial (land use areas),” and that those applications will be reviewed as major developments.
Attorney Bytell countered a previous argument by instructing the board members that county code specifically delegates the ZBA to hear the proposal.
She told the board members that they were empowered to add conditions for approval of the Azland proposal, based on any concerns.
With regard to conditions, the board members reached an agreement to increase the buffer from Ed Brown Field Road and the on-site wetlands buffer from 50 feet to 100 feet. Hours of operation were to be limited to 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday, with no work on Sunday. Conditions also called for quarterly monitoring of the business by county staff, along with other staff recommendations made prior to county approval of the BMPs.
The proposal, along with attached conditions, was approved in a 7-0 vote.