After public pushback, Madison County to vote on proposed biomass facility moratorium

Drax Biomass converts pine timber and sawmill residual fiber into biomass pellets that are used to generate power in the United Kingdom. Hammermills reduce the size of wood chips.
Drax Biomass converts pine timber and sawmill residual fiber into biomass pellets that are used to generate power in the United Kingdom. Hammermills reduce the size of wood chips.

MARSHALL - In its Aug. 2 meeting the county planning board tabled a vote on proposed additions to its Land Use Ordinance relating to language on biomass facilities.

The county took the issue a step further when it announced it will vote in its Oct. 10 meeting on instating a temporary ban on biomass facilities.

County Land Use Attorney John Noor issued a moratorium draft outlining the proposed temporary ban, as he did with the county's six-month ban on new event venues in June, during the Madison County Board of Commissioners' Sept. 19 meeting.

According to Noor, the key language introduced in the draft moratorium is in defining a biomass facility.

"That's essentially what you'd be putting a moratorium on," Noor said. "So now would be the time to, in particular, think about, well does this cover everything we want to put a moratorium on? Is this over-inclusive, and do we want to tailor it back and provide feedback so that we can change that definition if needed?"

During the Aug. 2 meeting, board member Alan Wyatt asked Planning and Zoning Director Terrey Dolan and Development Services Director Brad Guth what specifically prompted the proposed language additions, and Guth said an unnamed power company reached out to him about potentially bringing business to Madison.

"I had an inquiry about a biomass facility," Guth said. "I don't have a lot of specifics about it. Just like any economic development project, they had a third party working for them. We don't have anything on the books to regulate a biomass facility. So, if they applied, we would basically have to deal with that during the application process. I felt in talking with Terrey that we needed to have something on the books to address biomass - whether it be the big industrial-type facility, or if it was a smaller thing."

Also during the Aug. 2 meeting, roughly 10 residents spoke out against the prospect of bringing a biomass facility to the county, including Louis Zeller, the former executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

"Biomass is part of the problem, not part of the solution," Zeller said. "Biomass combustion is combustion of organic matter. Substituting wood for coal does not reduce carbon emissions. If I was a planning board member, my hair would be on fire - if I had any left - about doing something to prevent what's happening in Kentucky, or what's happening in California, from happening here in North Carolina."

Marshall resident and local environmental advocacy organization Clear Sky Madison founder Jim Tibbetts outlined why he felt apprehensive about the potential for the county to host a biomass facility.

"Until we get clearer rules in place, we're an easy target for predator industries that are coming in, global industries that have plants all over the world, to come in and decimate our forests, as they have in the Southeast already."

According to Noor, the moratorium would allow the Planning Board time to draft specific language relating to biomass facilities in the Land Use Ordinance.

"What the Planning Board essentially said is, 'We need more time to wrestle with this, to come up with a well-educated recommendation to you all,'" Noor said. "In the interim, because we have received inquiries at the county about these types of facilities, it'd be better to put the moratorium in place, give the planning board time to come up with the regulations, bring those to you all so that nothing can be submitted in the interim, and lock in essentially no rules.

"Under your current ordinance, what would happen is if a biomass facility was proposed, Terrey would have to try to find the most closely related definitional use in your ordinance, and apply those standards," Noor said. "Keep in mind, in your Residential-Agricultural districts, which is about 95% of the county, there are definitions that would currently allow those to be used by right. So, this again gives staff the time to come up with the right regulations and prevent any applications at the same time."

Next steps

The Planning Board will issue its proposed Land Use Ordinance biomass language addition changes to the county commissioners prior to the Oct. 10 meeting.

"The moratorium will buy the time necessary for the Planning Board to give it the proper consideration, and allow us to do the same," Commissioner Matt Wechtel said.

Noor said the county could also form a focus group panel, as it did with the courthouse renovation project and its public safety/emergency management radio system overhaul.

The Madison County Board of Commissioners will vote on the proposed biomass facility language Land Use Ordinance changes in its Oct. 10 meeting, which will take place at 7 p.m. at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, located at 258 Carolina Lane in Marshall.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Madison County to vote on proposed biomass facility moratorium