by Joe Schwartz
RALEIGH—Passionate neighbors dressed in red and overflowed from the Raleigh City Council chambers Tuesday night to urge the council and planning commission to deny a rezoning request that would allow Hanson Aggregates to expand its Crabtree Quarry operation.
But the message was clear to Mayor Charles Meeker, who, in an unusual move, asked supporters and opponents to raise their hands and be counted. Meeker, council and planning members even walked into the hallway, where 150 people were watching the proceedings on a television feed.
The official tally: 20 people in support of the rezoning and 400 against it, Meeker noted.
“This is certainly the biggest crowd I’ve seen in my 10 years here,” the mayor said.
Opponents came in droves, carrying signs reading, “Say NO to Hanson’s new quarry” and “Help us … blockthequarry.org,” leading folks to the website founded by neighbor Matthew Alvarez to organize the opposition. As of Wednesday morning, 1,545 people had signed a petition on the site that opposes the project.
Crabtree Quarry, located between Duraleigh and Ebenezer Church roads in nearby Umstead Park, is more than 60 years old.
HeidelbergCement, a German-based conglomerate that’s the largest provides of building materials in the world, purchased Hanson in 2007. Ward says Heidelberg wanted to sure up the quarry’s long-term position and eyed this expansion.
Hanson has long sought to expand south of Crabtree Creek and owns some land there, but the City of Raleigh has repeatedly denied requests to zone that property for mining, leading to a still ongoing legal battle.
Now Ward is offering to drop the lawsuit if this rezoning request is approved. The company has the option to purchase 169 acres of land to the immediate north of the current quarry pit. A developer that was in the process of building the Hamptons at Umstead neighborhood hasn’t been able to sell lots for future portions of the community, and hopes to sell its remaining land to Hanson instead.
But the aggregate company needs the city to move from a residential zoning, which has been in place for decades, to an industrial zone. A rezoning of the developer’s land would go against the previous vision for the land, which was outlined in Raleigh’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan approved in 2009, not a mining operation.
Hanson is offering to donate land to complete a critical greenway connection into Umstead Park and to create a nature preserve along it. They also say that the existing quarry pit will be available to be used for flood control.
Those carrots didn’t lure any support on Tuesday.
Though long-time greenway advocate Sig Hutchinson spoke in support of the rezoning and called the connection “the critical link” and “the last emerald in the emerald necklace,” he was far outnumbered by those who questioned Hanson’s motives.
“If Hanson was truly a good corporate citizen, they would make this connection available without holding it hostage,” said Andrew Meehan, whose Delta Ridge home would abut the quarry expansion.
Clyde Holt, the lawyer representing the residents, told the council to use eminent domain to purchased the property if they view the greenway as a vital link.
And though Neil Rudolph, vice president of Plaza Associates, the company that runs Crabtree Mall, championed the rezoning effort, he acknowledged the plans could be devastating for the mall during a serious flood. The mall’s parking lots lie in a floodplain, Rudolph said. City staff questioned the feasibility of using the current quarry to solve flooding problems.
“They have quite a ways to go before we can even consider the conditions they have proposed with the re-zoning case,” Raleigh Senior Stormwater Engineer Lisa Booze wrote in an e-mail to the planning department, “Nothing has been provided at this time to show what possible benefits [for] downstream properties within the floodplain.”
Specifically, storage volume, duration and frequency of using the pit are yet to be detailed, Booze wrote.
To their credit, Hanson has met with neighbors on multiple occasions and they have agreed to address some concerns. For instance, they now will require trucks to be covered so as not to spill rocks and spew dust across the roads. They also hired a company to perform blasting tests to quell concerns about noise and structural damage and have agreed to have the results audited by an independent company.
“We are willing and receptive to continuing to meet with these people to reach a common-ground solution,” Ward said. “When we began this process we thought this proposal was a positive, a win-win outcome, and we still believe that.”
But there’s only so much wiggle room. At the end of the day, Hanson wants to expand. The overwhelming majority of neighbors don’t.
The planning commission will now review the rezoning application and offer its recommendation to the council in late February or early March. Opponents have filed a valid protest petition, meaning at least six of the eight members of the city council must vote to approve the expansion if it is to move forward.