Kent County board backs asphalt plant

Neighbors fear it would harm the environment

Zoning law amended

Contractor gave each commissioner $100 for campaign

November 07, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

MASSEY -- The Kent County planning board has approved plans for building an asphalt plant in a cornfield on the edge of this town near the Delaware line. Neighbors fear an environmental disaster.

The approval came last week after the county commission rewrote the zoning law in July to accommodate David C. Bramble, a prominent Eastern Shore paving contractor.

Opponents say a plant at the headwaters of Swantown Creek, a tributary of the Sassafras River, would destroy wetlands and habitat for salamanders, pollute water and affect the flavor of the milk from Lester "Bucky" Jones' cows on an adjacent farm.

They call the changes made for Bramble, who contributed $100 to each commissioner's campaign, cronyism at its worst. They have papered the Kent County Circuit Court with suits objecting to each bureaucratic step in this drama and lined the streets with yard signs opposing the plant.

The commissioners say they merely fixed language that wasn't clear.

"I thought it was permitted there in the first place," said W. Michael Newnam, one of the commissioners. "So we just cleaned it up."

Added Commissioner Larry Beck: "If there's an environmental concern, that's what the Maryland Department of the Environment is for."

Bramble says the change in the zoning law was the only sensible thing to do for the third-biggest employer in the county.

"All my life I've been told people can't stay here on the Eastern Shore because they can't get a decent job," says Bramble. "I provide 300 jobs, and most of them are good jobs."

`Fundamentally unfair'

J. Carroll Holzer, the Baltimore County lawyer who represents the citizens' group, sees it differently.

"It's fundamentally unfair how this guy has been able to manipulate the system," he says. "The citizens got jobbed."

Bramble, who has asphalt plants in Wye Mills, Easton, Ridgely and Kingstown, bought the 225-acre farm at U.S. 301 and Route 313 in August 1998. He applied three months later for planning board approval to move the Kingstown plant to Massey, arguing that it is the same as a cement plant, which is permitted under the planned industrial district zoning on the land.

After hearing 13 hours of testimony over two nights, the planning board disagreed and Bramble appealed to Kent County Circuit Court, where he lost. He asked the Court of Special Appeals to review the case.

The case is pending.

Bramble also asked the county commissioners for an amendment to the zoning law that allows the "manufacture, processing and distribution of hot mix asphalt" in the zoning districts as "long as they are located within two miles of U.S. 301."

The amendment also exempts the plant from county performance standards as long as it meets state standards and said that traffic "typically associated" with such plants would be "considered acceptable."

Soft land

Meanwhile, Bramble applied for permits to widen a drainage ditch, set up a wildlife pond and establish a contractor's yard on the site.

"They told me I couldn't build an asphalt plant there, so I wanted to make it attractive," he says. "I had to protect my investment."

The neighbors say it's all a ruse to get the land ready for the asphalt plant.

"He's just trying to get the land dry enough for an industrial use," says Bob Osborn, a retired New Jersey police officer who breeds and raises quarter horses on 15 acres within sight of Bramble's property.

All the fields in that area flood during heavy rains, he says.

"I don't blame [Bramble] for wanting to build here; it's a good location. But this land's too soft."

Scott Smith, of the Department of Natural Resources' wildlife heritage division, complained in a June 18 letter that the ditch Bramble widened is "deeper than it had been," and that along with the waterfowl ponds it would create a significant impact on nearby forested wetlands.

Concerns for cows

Jones, who milks 1,000 dairy cows on an adjoining farm, complains the ditch is causing problems on his land.

"He's concentrated all the water in that ditch and created more velocity," says Jones. "Some of that water would have gone into the swamp, but now it won't. He's going to drain the ponds on my property."

Jones also worried that anything that blows from the asphalt plant onto the corn and alfalfa he raises to feed his herd will eventually show up in the milk.

"We know that if cows eat garlic, it shows up in the milk," he says. "It only stands to reason that if the odor from this plant gets on my cows, it'll come through in the milk. I sell to a premium market and I can't afford to lose that market."

Bramble says he has consulted experts who can find no evidence that the asphalt would affect the milk from Jones' cows.

"I understand the people are upset," he says. "But I don't think I'll be a bad neighbor when I get there."

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