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Crossing options weighed
Grading may be smaller to acquire permit
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Area officials may try to do a smaller grading project to jump-start work at the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre while the federal permitting process drags on.
“We are looking at alternative plans that might lessen the impacts with respect to mitigation, to see if we can get a permit for a smaller area and at least get started,” Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., said of a project to grade 280 acres in the more than 700-acre site.
No decision on a reduction in the scope of the project has been reached, Heath said.
“We are still hopeful that we can get the whole 280-acre pad permitted, but we’re going to do whatever we have to do to get started,” Heath said.
Funds have been committed to cover the estimated $16.5 million cost of grading two sites, building roads and other related work at the business center that was expected to be ready for projects in 2013.
The county applied for permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulations related to the Clean Water Act.
At the time, officials estimated the permitting phase would take three to four months to complete.
Last month, County Administrator Benny Summerlin said DEQ approved the permit, but because the CCBC was the first megasite project to apply for permits, the corps deemed the project speculative.
Megasites (or megaprojects) are those that create at least 400 jobs and have a capital investment of at least $250 million, according to previous reports.
Also, the corps has requested additional information, including an alternative analysis of why the Commonwealth Crossing property was selected over other sites and identifying potential users of pads in the new, rail-served industrial park that is located on the county’s southern border near North Carolina.
“We are working on the alternative analysis, to go through and prove to them that there was no other site alternative,” Heath said. “The more we do, the more it proves — to us anyway — that there was no alternative site other than this.”
Data about large projects that recently located on 200-acre pads also is being included, he said.
“We’re building the case that a site this size is being used, and projects are being built,” Heath said, and noted that companies such as Toyota, Continental Tire and Caterpillar are among the recent announcements in other areas.
“And they are all in the same size range that we’re trying to (attract to the CCBC),” Heath said. Work on the analysis continues, he said.
“We understand the regulations, and we can see their (EPA’s) side of it, but we can prove how many projects we’ve talked to about that site and how many we could have talked to seriously had the grading been started,” Heath said. It’s difficult to show a site that is not ready to build on, he added.
For example, in the last month, “we’ve talked to two potential projects that had specific interest in that site, and both said ‘No,’” because the grading had not started, Heath said.
More recently, after looking at the park, a consultant representing “a huge project” asked, “‘Why in the world would we want to get tied up in a permitting fight with the corps,’” Heath said. “That’s a good question, and we don’t have a good answer.”
The drawn-out permitting process may be more understandable “if we were asking somebody to help us pay for it, but this community has really stepped up” and rallied to get the needed funds, he said.
Heath noted the locality “cobbled together” money needed for the grading project from partners. That includes two grants totaling $6.5 million from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission; $5 million from The Harvest Foundation; $3.3 million from Henry County; and $1.7 million from Martinsville.
“This community is trying to do something to help itself, and an agency is stopping us because they say it’s speculative,” Heath said. “This is beyond belief for me. This is probably the most frustrating thing I’ve been involved in (during his career).”
“It seems like we’re being thwarted ... but we’re doing what we can,” Heath said of efforts to rebuild the economy. “We will find our way through it. We’re going to do whatever we have to do get started on this project.”
If that means grading a smaller site, “it will at least give us something to get started on,” Heath said.
But, that also could mean a reduction in funding from some agencies, because “we’ve marketed this idea based on a plan, and if we have to grade a smaller portion, we may have to go back to our funding partners” and possibly re-negotiate with each, Heath said.