Senior Staff Writer
Marshall County commissioners on Tuesday voted 11-6 to change the zoning code in a way that creates a path that could lead to expansion of Cedar Ridge Landfill.
The change as presented by Commissioner Anna Childress, chairman of the county's Solid Waste Committee, allows landfill expansion in an M-2 zone. New landfills would have to be in an M-1 zone and get permission from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
BZA approval isn't required for landfill expansion. However, landfill expansion plans must always be compared to state environmental standards under Tennessee's Jackson Law.
And, Marshall County's two-mile rule - it requires that distance between new landfill operations and schools, parks, churches, clinics and other facilities - remains in effect, but Waste Management Inc. attorneys compare that rule to another county's similar rule, saying the other county's rule was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
County commissioners conducted a public hearing before their voting session Tuesday night. Objections came from landfill opponents who voiced environmental concerns, although those concerns were seen by some officials as irrelevant because the question was only on the issue of how the zoning code might be changed. Financial considerations were also raised, but seen as irrelevant a week earlier when the county Planning Commission unanimously recommended against changing the zoning code regarding landfills.
Cedar Ridge is in an agriculture zone, a default classification, because the landfill was there before the zoning code was adopted. In the technical terminology of zoning law, the landfill is a "non-conforming use in an A-1 zone."
Now that the zoning code is changed, Waste Management officials plan to submit an application to the Planning Commission requesting a rezoning of the property owned by the company. That land includes acreage that fronts Old Columbia Highway. It backs up to the landfill and has been the source of dirt used to cover trash.
Planning commissioners would have to review the rezoning request and make a recommendation to the county commissioners who would cast the final vote on the rezoning.
Robert Cheney, director of business development and strategic planning for Waste Management, says the company would ask commissioners to compare the company's expansion plans for Cedar Ridge to the environmental standards required by the Jackson Law at the same time the company asks that the land be rezoned from the A-1 classification to an M-2 zone.
That could happen in the next several months, Cheney said Tuesday night.
A few commissioners asked each other if they thought County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett would veto the zoning code change vote. Liggett did exercise his veto power in May 2007 when the issue was on whether expansion would comply with the Jackson Law. That's when Cedar Ridge expansion was sought on land that's surrounded by landfilling operations, but was not permitted by the state. A few weeks later, the commissioners voted to override Liggett's veto. Tuesday, Liggett was undecided on whether he would try to veto the zoning code change for the anticipated expansion on what's commonly called the Coble property because of the family that sold the land to Waste Management.
On Tuesday night, Commissioner John Christmas seconded Childress' motion to change the zoning code.
Noting the American tradition of various controls over change, Commissioner Richard Hill said, "If we pass this tonight, we will be losing some of our checks and balances."
He also spoke about a motion to table the vote so there would be more time for study.
Later that night, Hill said he thought the 11-6 vote was null and void because, procedurally, the commission had to vote on a motion to table before any other matter was considered.
Wednesday, Commissioner Tom Sumners said he heard Hill ask if the matter should be tabled, but not actually make such a motion. Others at the meeting didn't recall a motion and it was clear the chairman, Commissioner Mike Waggoner, didn't ask for a motion or a second. Waggoner voted for the code change and turned to Sumners who read a prepared statement.
Sumners asked 10 questions including whether the commission should override planning commissioners and whether commissioners were more concerned about money than the environment.
Host fees paid by Waste Management to the county have totaled nearly $300,000 in a year, Cheney said later. If the county paid for its own convenience centers - they're now covered by half the host fees paid back to Waste Management - it would cost the county some $800,000 or $1.5 million to maintain the service without the landfill's operation.
Sumners also asked if there was a reason to rush. Several weeks earlier, Waggoner told members of the Solid Waste Committee that he didn't want to slow down Waste Management's plans because expansion would mean continued host fees for the county. He also said the county can't afford to lose $1.5 million. That's the higher of the two cost estimates for county management of convenience centers.
Commissioner Mickey King established, with an opinion from County Attorney Bill Haywood, that the landfill couldn't expand without the code change and the two briefly discussed the BZA's role.
Without further comment, Waggoner called for the vote.
Voting yes were Childress, Waggoner, Christmas and Commissioners Nathan Johnson, Dean Delk, E.W. Hill, Barry Spivey, Kevin Vanhooser, Jeff Taylor, Sheldon Davis and Seth "Buddy" Warf.
Voting no were Hill, Sumners, King and Commissioners Phil Willis, Don Ledford and Reynelle Smith.
Bill Penny, attorney with Stites & Harbison, representing Waste Management, was "happy" with the results, said he never takes it for granted that the result will be what was sought, and he had no time frame on when the rezoning application might be filed.
Amid several conversations after the 12-minute meeting was Cornersville-area resident Donna Giles' exchange with Cheney.
"Yes, we drafted it," the Waste Management manager told her about the resolution recommended by the Solid Waste Committee and adopted that night.
However, Cheney continued, landfills have always been available for disposal of trash, although they're not normally noticed unless there's a controversy.
"I'm concerned about future liability after you can't get more land," Giles said. He told her a performance bond is required and that environmental law makes owners of landfills responsible for their consequences forever. Furthermore, some household trash arrives at landfills with refuse that shouldn't be put in a landfill, but that's why clay and plastic liners have been required.
There are "occasional leaks," Cheney said, but since the company purchased the Garrett property that includes a seep of what's been described as leachate from the landfill, Waste Management has access to where liquids in garbage appear to be squeezed out of the ground. The company bought property from the Garrett family at the conclusion of litigation challenging the state's decision to grant permission for expansion of he landfill on property obtained more than a decade before the Coble property was bought.
Giles concluded that Cheney had answered more of her questions than commissioners.
Carolyn Osborne of Snell Road was "very disappointed" in the result of the vote, but concluded, "There's nothing we can do. They (Waste Management) can go wherever they want to."
The company did appear to have a clear majority Tuesday night, but Wednesday evening, Richard Hill raised a question about whether a two-thirds majority vote was needed.
Regardless of that, he conceded the point that there was no motion to table the issue, but indicated other steps against landfill expansion were being explored.