Nimby Notes: Heading South

Landfill projects in California and South Carolina illustrate the perils of politics.

Every year proposed landfills live and die according to the shifting political winds of their host communities. For landfill operators, it can be helpful to look at recent victories and failures of these projects. Whether they’re success stories or cautionary tales, they serve as valuable guides to getting your own project across the finish line.

Falling into the latter category is the recent landfill proposal in Williamsburg County, S.C. The county owned and operated a small municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill for years before closing it due to Subtitle D, leaving it saddled with a $1.8 million annual contract for waste removal. However, the county maintained their state solid waste permit for a 40,000-ton MSW landfill, and was given time to “use it or lose it” by the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control. The head of the Williamsburg County government, Supervisor Stanley Pasley, recognized the value of the permit, and got to work.

Pasley first created a “Solid Waste Advisory Council,” packed with pro-landfill types, which gave its blessing to exploring a new MSW facility in Williamsburg County. To make it economically viable, they requested – and received – a permit modification to increase the disposal from 40,000 to 400,000 tons per year. Pasley authorized the county’s engineering firm, HDR Inc., to begin preliminary land evaluations. Finally, the County Commission voted 5-2 to purchase up to 1,600 acres to build the future Subtitle D facility. Three major landfill operators were quietly in discussions with the county and HDR to run the facility.

However, residents were not consulted about the landfill until the potential landfill locations were unveiled. Pasley and the county had left residents in the dark on the location, citing the sensitivity of the land purchase negotiations. A commissioner began to raise questions. Citizens began to show up at meetings. The newspaper ran editorials questioning the idea. Landowners began to call commissioners to voice their displeasure.

No one had answers. One month after authorizing the land purchase, arguably sealing the deal, two commissioners reversed themselves and voted to abandon the landfill plan and relinquish the solid waste permit.

The problem for Williamsburg County and the three interested landfill operators was not the message, but the messenger. Supervisor Pasley, the recent recipient of a $25,000 pay increase (bring his salary to nearly $100,000), was addressing a county with a budget awash in red ink, and where 32.2 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Despite his forethought, he should not have been leading the charge. With no campaign in place to tout the benefits and build support or address concerns, the project was doomed.

A success story can be found in North County, Calif. Nestled between San Diego and Los Angeles, this region is home to wealthy coastal dwellers. Further inland are endless stretches of accessible, undeveloped land, where Gregory Canyon Ltd. has been patiently laying the groundwork to convert their 1,770-acre parcel into the site of a 308-acre landfill.

Their political due diligence extends as far back as 1994, when the firm won Proposition C, a referendum to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to allow a landfill without a major-use permit. This removed the county’s Board of Supervisors from the decision-making process, placing the burden instead on state environmental and engineering officials. These bodies, they reasoned, would be less subject to political passion and more focused on proper landfill engineering.

That decision demonstrated enormous foresight. By divorcing the most political bodies from the approval process, they have been able to work with the appropriate state agencies to create a blueprint for a large but environmentally safe facility. And although their road has been long, they are closing in on the last of the permits they’ll need to break ground.

These two counties, 3,000 miles apart, offer important lessons for any landfill operator looking to turn a project into reality. They demonstrate the importance of planning ahead, working through the political system instead of ignoring it, and being willing to run a proper public education campaign. Tomorrow’s permits will be granted to the developers who understand and apply these lessons to their own projects.

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state & local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying.

Have a suggestion, question or case study for NIMBY Notes? Email the author at [email protected]

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