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Newtown needs a compromise to clear the air

Change in Newtown means balancing political wills, tax revenues and health risks

POSTED: December 20, 2009 12:14 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Scrap metal is piled high above a fence at Blaze Recycling & Metals that borders the property line of Newtown resident Christine Young.

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Forty-two years ago, no one disputed Carl Loef's claim that he could improve 859 Athens St. with a junkyard, though it was right next to homes on Mill and Norwood streets.

But in 1975, when Loef made plans to expand Gainesville Scrap Iron and Metal, his neighbors asked the city's Board of Zoning Appeals not to approve it.

"One resident stated that they were being run our their homes by junkyards. One person stated that they would like to have a beautiful place to live and raise their children. -- not a junkyard. One person stated they were try to get Community Development to purchase the property and beautify it," read the minutes from the November 1975 meeting.

Still the Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously backed Loef. And over the next 20 years, as Gainesville Scrap Iron and Metal moved closer to their homes, residents cited the problems with unkempt drainage ditches, dust, rodents and noise. But almost every time, the Board of Zoning Appeals approved the industry's expansion.

Today, Newtown residents’ requests are nearly the same as they were in November 1975.

“The community has complained for numerous amounts of years, and you’re telling me if you have any sentiment or any regard for people, at some point, somebody would have made some type of concessions, you know?” said former Newtown resident Tyrone Sims.

But local government officials who inherited the decades-long drama between the residents and their nearby industrial neighbors say harmony in Newtown requires them to carefully balance the needs of the residents and the industries.

None will say, however, which weighs more: the industries that, for more than 50 years, have provided jobs and tax dollars to the community or the residents, whose families have been there even longer, and feel their health has been compromised by their proximity to industry.

‘A lot of problems could be fixed’
Much of Newtown’s fight for what residents and advocates call environmental justice has involved petitioning the state’s Environmental Protection Division to force industries to clean up their act.

Represented by GreenLaw, a public interest law firm in Atlanta, the Newtown community has, over the years, brought environmental grievances to the EPD’s attention.

Battle by battle, the community’s persistence has achieved some victories. Their continuous complaints about grain dust forced the Land O’Lakes Purina feed mill to fix faulty grain silos and resulted in greater regulation of hexane emissions, a chemical the nearby Cargill plant uses to make soybean oil.

However, EPD hasn’t always enforced air quality standards with the tenacity that Newtown residents would like. And with the state in a budget crisis, the agency may be even less watchful now than in the past.

Periodically, EPD inspects the industries around Newtown for compliance with their permits to release toxins into the air. Companies such as Cargill, which EPD considers a major source of pollution, are inspected annually. EPD inspects companies such as Purina, considered a minor source of pollution, based on complaints.

Lately, the industries that are normally regulated by the state agency have been inspected less often because of the state’s budget deficit, said Lou Musgrove, manager of EPD’s stationary source compliance program.

“We do fewer inspections because we have ... three vacancies in my program, so we’ve got three less engineers to be out in the field, so that affects how many inspections we can do,” Musgrove said. “We haven’t eased up on enforcement when we do find violations, but obviously, more field presence would be better.”

But even when the agency is fully staffed, EPD does not consider the scrap yard on Athens Street enough of a source of air pollution to require a permit. And while they can force an inspection of Purina with a complaint about grain dust, Newtown residents feel they have nowhere to go with complaints about the dust created by the junkyard, now under new ownership as Blaze Recycling & Metals.

“With the mills and things, we can always call EPD, but as far as the junkyard, it’s no one to call,” said Faye Bush, president of the Newtown Florist Club.

For these reasons, advocates for the community insist that much of the issues in Newtown — the dust, the noise and the odors of industry — will have to be remedied by local action.

“Sometimes, I don’t think people take as seriously as they should the problems that are going on in that community,” said Justine Thompson, the executive director of GreenLaw. “A lot of the problems could be fixed with sufficient political will ... if the city of Gainesville committed to remedying a lot of the problems there and taking it seriously, a lot of problems could be fixed.”

Newtown’s situation calls for a more intensive political approach to environmental justice than simple state regulation, said Jamie Baker Roskie, a land use attorney with the University of Georgia.

In January, Roskie and other Newtown advocates asked the City Council to strengthen the city’s noise and air quality ordinances. Roskie proposed that the city establish a maximum noise level, measured by decibels, for different times of day and zoning districts. She also proposed that the city put a damper on dust emissions and require businesses that generate a certain amount of dust to create — and continuously update — a plan to mitigate it.

‘Strike a balance’
Nearly one year later, the city’s regulation of noise and air pollution is the same as it was when Roskie addressed it. But although nothing has changed, city officials say they have been looking for ways to “strike a balance” between industrial interests and residential needs.

Gainesville Community Development Director Rusty Ligon said city officials have researched how other cities regulate noise and dust. Both Marietta and Alpharetta have ordinances regulating noise, but it seems municipal regulation of air quality is unprecedented.

“That makes it more challenging,” Ligon said.

Both Alpharetta and Marietta have tackled noise with different approaches to different problems. Marietta officials sought to regulate excessive noise in the city’s downtown area. Alpharetta officials needed to quell a problem with early morning construction noise, Ligon said.

To enforce the noise ordinance in Marietta, city officials there purchased a $5,000 noise meter certified by the American National Standards Institute. Alpharetta officials, on the other hand, bought more meters that were much less expensive for all of its police, Ligon said.

One approach raises questions of accuracy in enforcement, and the other may be cost-prohibitive. Neither seems attractive to city officials with a shrinking budget.

“The (proposed) ordinances, the way they are right now structured ... there would be a lot of cost,” Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett said. “We don’t have a figure on that now, but there would be a lot of cost to enact those.”

And at a time when revenues may be the city’s top priority, Padgett said any push to enact Roskie’s proposal would have to be initiated by the city’s elected officials.

But since Roskie met with the council in January, the issue has not been on the agenda for discussion at any council meetings.
Gainesville’s incoming mayor, current Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner, said the council is “just beginning to process and trying to address the problem” in Newtown. She said city officials are not even sure that state law will allow them to regulate air pollution.

“There’s no point in putting it on the agenda if we can’t do anything about it,” Bruner said.

Councilman George Wangemann calls the situation in Newtown a “high priority,” but said the council will have to approach it carefully. While the city seeks to make residents happy, officials cannot forget that Newtown’s neighbors are some of Gainesville’s largest taxpayers and employers.

“We have to be careful, too, that since these businesses have been there for years and years and they do provide jobs for many in the community, that we don’t strangle them financially by passing all these regulation and ordinances that would simply increase the cost of doing business and possibly even putting some out of business,” Wangemann said.

“You have to find a way to be fair to both sides and somehow retain your sensitivity to both interests in the community, the industrial as well as the residential community.”

For now, the 22-year councilman said he is more apt not to act unless scientific studies show pollution is harmful in Newtown. If and when he does act, Wangemann said he wants the result to satisfy both industrial and residential interests.

In the meantime, Padgett said he hopes the city can bring the residents and the industries together to forge a compromise. In the past, city officials along with GreenLaw have helped residents and the previous owners of the scrap metal yard work out their issues with agreements to restrict work hours and move noisier operation away from residential property lines.

But the promises previous owners made in the past may not have carried over with the recent change in the scrap yard’s ownership.
“Maybe the city can help facilitate something between Blaze and Newtown where we can strike that balance they had in the past,” Padgett said.

Until then, Newtown residents will continue to wait and hope their calls for change are answered.



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