04/13/08 — Duplin says no to land for plant

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Duplin says no to land for plant

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 13, 2008 2:00 AM

Faced with the prospect of a poultry litter-burning power plant being built in their neighborhoods, Duplin County residents in and around Warsaw have spent the last few months speaking out in opposition.

Their concerns are focused on the effects such a facility would have in terms of odor, traffic, sight lines and on air quality -- concerns Fibrowatt has faced everywhere it has built plants, from England to Minnesota.

But, said Terry Walmsley, vice president of environmental and public affairs, those are concerns they try to meet head on.

"If you look at the history of Fibrowatt it's always been a very open process," Walmsley said. "I've always felt the best way to get to a long-term potential relationship is to be very open about what's coming to the area. We're not afraid to talk about the issues, because we have enough confidence that we have the answers. We would rather be in a situation we can answer those questions."

In Duplin County, despite nearly two years of conversation, the county commissioners' recent responses to those concerns might have torpedoed the entire project.

The problem has been finding a site where the company might be able to locate.

The first site the county and the company agreed on earlier this year was about a half-mile north of Warsaw. But after residents protested its location in a minority neighborhood, the commissioners rescinded the suggestion in early March and agreed to find another site.

Last week, however, after those residents voiced their complaints at a county commission meeting, the board again decided to pull the land offer off the table.

"We were a bit surprised by the way it all played out," Walmsley admitted, especially since the opposition hadn't really appeared until after the first of the year. "But that's their discretion."

He did say, though, that those actions would be taken into account when the company makes its decision.

"It will have some effect on how we proceed going forward," he said.

The announcement of the location of their first of three North Carolina plants is expected within two weeks -- one in the east, one in the piedmont and one in the west.

In the eastern part of the state, the company is choosing between Duplin and Sampson counties, both of which have offered property tax rebate incentive packages -- $1.5 million from Sampson and $3.5 million from Duplin.

Duplin also has offered to secure an option on the land for a site for the plant, with the provision that Fibrowatt pay the county back if the project comes to fruition.

That, however, is the source of current controversy.

"If they wouldn't involve us in it, they could buy any piece of property and go anywhere they want. We don't have countywide zoning," Duplin Commissioner David Fussell said. "When the company involved the government, that's when all the people were brought in."

Walmsley, though, said the company did not ask for the incentive packages -- just for help identifying potential sites and working with the current residents.

"It's not something we go out and look for," he said. "But it's certainty part of everything we'll be evaluating."

At this point, however, County Manager Mike Aldridge isn't sure the financial incentives are going to make much difference -- especially since there was some discussion by the commissioners about reducing those based on Sampson's offer.

"Fibrowatt has said before they won't go where they're not wanted, and I pretty much feel we've said they're not welcome," he said. "They want to be a good corporate neighbor, but to be a good corporate neighbor they have to feel like they have support from the governing board. And the way this has been flip-flopped twice, I don't think sends a good message to this company or to others that might be looking at Duplin County."

The problem, he said, was that officials never sat down with both the concerned residents and the company to facilitate a dialogue -- something that would have occurred during any required public hearing before any incentive package could have been approved.

"The commissioners are all individually willing to say we need to promote economic development, create new jobs and expand the tax base, but we didn't follow our due process," Aldridge said.

Fussell, however, is OK with that.

"I think we made a wise decision. I'm happy we postponed it. I know I wouldn't want it next to me," he said. "I'd rather err on the side of caution than bring a company in that's not welcome.

"And they may decide to go elsewhere, and if that's the case, that's the case."