Wilkes Planning Commissioners Give Thumbs Down to Vanguard Project

Published on 14 September 2023 at 08:29

Planning Commission member Adam Bohler speaks to the audience at the September 12 board meeting.

Watch a full recording of the meeting on our YouTube channel

            Wilkes County’s Planning Commission, meeting to decide a zoning question, was greeted Tuesday afternoon at the Courthouse by a standing-room-only crowd. The session was scheduled to decide the fate of a proposed industrial / agricultural waste recycling project at a Rayle dairy farm.

            The board initially met in August to hear the proposal, but decided to table it for a month to allow further research into the issue.

            From the beginning Tuesday, three of the four board members openly declared they were not in favor of a zoning variance allowing Vanguard Renewables to construct an anaerobic co-digester at Smith Dairy Farms on Centerville Road, near Rayle.

            An “anaerobic co-digester” processes cattle manure, along with organic food processing waste. One end product is methane gas, which can be used in energy production; the process also results in liquid and solid waste materials. Most of the non-agricultural waste would come from industrial food processing facilities outside Wilkes County. The methane can be used in energy production; the remaining liquid and solid by-products would be used as soil amendment or stored on-site.

            At two previous public meetings, numerous Wilkes residents voiced strong opposition to the project by Vanguard Renewables, a Weston, MA company.  Forty of the Smith Farm’s neighbors had previously submitted a petition to the planning board denouncing the plan. Many of the signers were at the meeting.

            “This is an urban problem that they have delivered to our back porch,” declared Bill Beck, who signed the petition, and whose home is adjacent to the proposed site.

            Beck is a co-plaintiff in a pending Madison County lawsuit — initially filed in 2020 — seeking damages from dairy owner Jeff Smith and eleven co-defendants for illegally dumping “hazardous, noxious, foul, polluting, pathogenic and odorous wastes,” including “poultry carcasses and body parts.” 

            “Once the foot’s in the door it’s gonna be very hard to undo what has been done; the best place to stop it is right here,” said Beck’s Centerville Road neighbor Scott Powell, who is also a party to the lawsuit.

            “This is a technology that’s been around for a while,” said Athens attorney Greg Sowell, representing Vanguard. Sowell was first to address the board

           “They want to invest in your community, they want to create jobs, they want to add $25 million to your tax base.

            “They’re in a number of states, they’ve been in business 10 years,” he continued. “They’re not some fly-by-night operation. They want to do well…the way they do it is they are good neighbors, they’re able to create and re-create this in other places. Here are people with good technology that are willing to be bound by whatever the county comes up with these the right conditions.”

            The crowd was unconvinced.

            “The likelihood of Wilkes outfoxing a good-sized energy company and a person with an established record of thumbing his nose at the community and thumbing his nose at the law…ah, come on,” countered Doug Abramson, a local landowner. “You (the board) have had essentially no communication with the landowner…he has not even been a part of this process.”

            As they prepared to announce their decision, a couple of the board members weighed in. One of the issues was the potential damage an estimated 20-25 large trucks per day would cause to a county-maintained secondary road.

            “For the people with this digester, you need to go back and do a little more planning. I could not vote for it if it’s going to cost the county one penny to maintain a road at $260,000 per mile to pave. I couldn’t turn my back on my neighbors and my friends even though I love this technology and idea.” - Board member Adam Bohler        

            “This processor might be a good alternative to just dumping this waste in a field…but with the restrictions, with no restrictions from the state, not being able to control what’s going in or out or anything, as of right now my vote is no.” - Board Chairman Kyle Brown.

            As the hearing approached the one-hour mark, discussion ended. The board took a vote and unanimously rejected Vanguard’s special use request. The final decision is expected to be made at the October 12 County Board of Commissioners meeting.


Richard Crabbe reporting

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Jimmy Toto
7 months ago

The October Board of Commissioners meeting is on the 5th not the 12th due to some of the commissioners being out of town for a conference on the 12th.