It Still Stinks: Attorney says it’s coming from the county

Published 9:04 am Friday, July 10, 2015

The stink continues.

But according to attorney, Phil Searcy, the stink isn’t coming from the Gallins composting operation off Farmington Road adjacent to the new Davie High School. It’s coming from how the county is treating Peter Gallins and his business.

“This whole thing is about odor,” Searcy told county commissioners Monday night, “the odor of Pete’s operation and the odor of how this thing has been handled.”

Gallins flew from Florida from a family birthday celebration for Monday night’s meeting because he learned last Thursday that regulating his and other similar businesses was on the agenda for action. He learned after arriving that no action would be taken – that the board is scheduled to take a vote on the issue on Sept. 8. The board had unanimously voted June 15 to delay action for 60 days. Then it was on Monday’s agenda.

Searcy said the issue first arose in January, and it was about a road that had been used to reach what is now Gallins’ property for more than 80 years. It was the only access to a particular field.

He said that the county, through Attorney Ed Vogler, offered $3,000 to Gallins to re-route or fix the road. When Gallins asked that the county just fix the road because its heavy equipment was already on site, Vogler said they couldn’t because that was taxpayer money. “That’s a bit of the same,” Searcy said.

He said his office reached out to school superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness and County Zoning Director Andrew Meadwell, and neither provided a courtesy return call.

It wasn’t long, he said, before Gallins received notice that the county zoning office had decided his operation was a landfill and should be regulated as such.

“You show me what land is being filled,” Searcy said. “This stinks, yes. Ya’ll ought to be ashamed.”

Searcy said the issue is long from being over. “You will cost the county money. We came to you as professionals. Where is ‘We will talk to you,’? It’s not there.”

Gallins, who takes organic food waste from restaurants and institutions and turns it into compost for sale, referenced a June 26 three-page memo from Hartness to County Manager Mike Ruffin and members of the board of education. The memo said the Enterprise Record printed “misinformation” and went into details about his contacts with Gallins.

On Monday, Gallins said he could refute much of what Hartness had written, but did not want to get into a “he said, I said” argument.

Hartness said in the memo that he contacted Scott Mouw with NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which regulates Gallins’ business, and “expressed my concerns about the odor complaints we had received from the middle school and had reported to the county. Mr. Mouw indicated that Gallins … were struggling to balance their process and control odors.”

Mouw later said in a letter to Hartness that DENR had received no complaints about odor from the site. “I would like to note for the record that did not indicate the Gallins operation was struggling with odor issues,” Mouw wrote. “If you would make these points clear to the board and county manager, I would be very grateful.”

Gallins said: “He’s telling Darrin, ‘Why are you putting words in my mouth?’”

According to Meadwell, his office has received one complaint about odor from the composting operation, and that came from School Board Chair Chad Fuller. The proposed regulations from the county planning board, which Fuller’s father, Phil Fuller, chairs, came just over a month later.

Gallins presented maps to commissioners that showed where the schools had wanted to place berms of topsoil on his land, because it had to be moved because a building couldn’t be built on top of it. “We didn’t take the dirt, and now it is being piled up. That takes away from how much space they have. “All that junk has come up since we didn’t want to participate.”

Gallins said he supports education and the new high school.

If approved, the regulations could make it too expensive for Gallins to stay in business. Setbacks are large, and requirements would include 10-foot trees within two years as well as an opaque fence.

Gallins said he studied the county’s zoning ordinance before opening the business, and saw nothing that would prevent him from starting the operation. But because he didn’t get a permit, Meadwell said, the business would not be grandfathered, or exempt from any new regulations.

He is disputing Meadwell’s claim that the operation is a landfill and not part of a farm, and the county board of adjustment may hear that claim.

Gallins questioned the county’s integrity. “With all due respect … saying it would be brought up in 60 days and doing it 16 days later … When the commissioners vote to do something and don’t do it, people have a real problem on a lot of levels.”

A previous board of adjustments meeting was canceled two hours before it was to start, after Mouw had driven here from Raleigh to testify.

“It’s like the rules are being changed in the middle of the game,” Gallins said. “I knew the law. I’ve tried to follow it. I don’t want to break any rules. But the rules change and you’re already there?”

He said he can find no justification as to why the county is proposing regulations much more stringent than DENR.

Gallins said that Meadwell told him in February the schools “would sound the alarm” if he had to go through a special use permit process, which is being proposed for such operations in residential-agriculture zones.

“This requirement puts us out of business,” Gallins said.

A few residents spoke in his favor during the public speaking portion of the meeting.

“This young man and his wife were recognized by the Piedmont Environmental Alliance as the green business of the year,” said Randy McDaniel Sr. “I don’t think we should be talking about this. I don’t see why Mr. Gallins property wouldn’t be considered as a bona-fide farm.” He read from the county’s zoning ordinance to support his claim.

“We’re over-regulated in this country and now we’re doing it right here,” McDaniel said. “Leave this man alone.”

“I’m shocked and surprised this board has taken such a punitive action against him,” said Gaye Dillard, Gallins’ mother. “You’re trying to shut him down because he won’t sell the school property. You need to treat him as you would your own family and friends.”

Farms are exempt from zoning regulations, and Miles Jones said that any farm could be considered “obnoxious” at some point. “Farmers need to think long and hard about what’s going on here.”

Spurgeon Foster, a local farmer, said he is worried about the proposal. “If you’re trying to re-classify a farm as a landfill … I have a problem. I can see this as being a danger to everybody.”

Foster asked if the schools needed more land, and County Board Chair Terry Renegar said to his knowledge, the schools don’t.

“Then offer him enough money and he might sell, but don’t put him out of busines,” Foster said. “It’s wrong what you’re trying to do.”

Commissioner Dan Barrett visited the site, and said though the wind was blowing in his direction, he noticed no smell at the property line with the school site. The odor was very noticeable as he came upon the actual composting site, which is on five or so acres near the middle of a 150-acre site.

Barrett and Commissioner Mark Jones apologized to Gallins about the item being on Monday’s agenda. Barrett said he was just as surprised as anyone.

Commissioner Richard Poindexter said “bona fide farmers” would not be affected by the proposal, but “we need to have a say about what goes on in this county.”

“This has been a flawed process and for whatever reason, this has been put on the fast track,” Barrett said. “If people don’t think they’re getting a fair shake, you lose credibility. We have to do better. I think we’re being pulled into something.”

He said the time was needed to study the issue.

Renegar asked what else needs to be done. “We’re talking about commercial composting. It’s vague what classification it would come under. We need some direction,” Renegar said.

Commissioner John Ferguson said he sees it as a text amendment that would affect the entire county, not just one operation.

“I’m not sure other than aesthetics what we’re trying to regulate,” Jones said.

Renegar said because of the vagueness of the zoning ordinance, he sees no reason to wait on making a decision, though he voted with all other commissioners to wait until Sept. 8.

“It needs to be dealt with Sept. 8. It has to be dealt with,” Renegar said.