The Allen Co., which for decades has operated an underground limestone quarry on the Madison County side of the Kentucky River at Boonesborough, has bought this farm on the Clark County side of the river and has asked for a zone change to turn it into an open-pit quarry. The new quarry would cover all of the land shown in this photo. The existing quarry across the river can be seen at right. Photos by Tom Eblen
WINCHESTER — A diverse committee of citizens spent more than two years writing Clark County’s 2012 comprehensive land-use plan. It calls for the area near Fort Boonesborough State Park and the Kentucky River to be managed primarily for farms, homes, tourism and historic preservation.
So imagine the surprise of Deborah Garrison and her neighbors when they heard the county’s staff planner had recommended that the Allen Company should be allowed to turn the scenic, 103-acre farm beside their homes into an open-pit limestone quarry.
“Our home of 30 years is being threatened by big business,” said Garrison, a retired state employee. “It’s just such a blatant power grab.”
For more than 50 years, the Allen Company has operated an underground quarry beneath the hillside across the river in Madison County. The quarry sends a steady stream of gravel trucks up and down the steep hills of Highway 627 in both directions.
But there hasn’t been a quarry on the Clark County side of the river since the 1940s. That is when the Allen Company closed what is now an abandoned, fenced-off pit and tunnels adjacent to the farm where Ben Shearer raised tobacco, cattle and prize-winning sheep until his death in 1993.
The Allen Company recently bought the farm from Shearer’s heirs and filed for a zoning change, from agriculture to heavy industry. An Aug. 6 hearing before Clark County’s Planning Commission lasted four hours. The hearing was continued for five more hours last Wednesday night.
At the second hearing, four Allen Company customers in the audience spoke in favor of the zone change, saying Clark County needs a plentiful supply of crushed stone for development. Everyone else in the packed Clark Circuit Courtroom seemed to be against it. They included residents near the proposed quarry site, who hastily retained environmental lawyer Hank Graddy to help them fight the zone change.
The Allen Company’s attorney and witnesses argued that the company needs more quarry capacity, although they acknowledged the company has leased 172 acres on the Madison County side they have yet to mine. They also said that additional production in Clark County would be offset by less production in Madison.
To justify the zone change, the company argued that the hilly farm is no longer suitable for agriculture and would make a better quarry because of a 570-foot-thick shelf of limestone beneath the soil.
But opponents disputed those arguments and cited many other concerns. They worry about dust, noise and the potential for blasting damage to nearby homes, wells and springs. They worry about the loss of scenic views in a tourist area of historic significance because of its role in Kentucky’s early settlement and western migration. And they worry about putting more slow-moving gravel trucks on a busy, hilly highway that is often shrouded in river fog.
A zoning change for this quarry would be “a classic case of spot zoning,” Graddy told the commission. “Spot zoning is illegal. It is why we have planning and zoning in the first place.
“Your obligation is to follow your plan,” Graddy said, noting that the comp plan has no provisions at all for quarries.
But Allen Company attorney John Rompf argued that the comp is not a “straightjacket,” and he said commissioners should consider the company’s important role in local economic development.
After nine hours of witnesses, testimony, questions and arguments, the commission voted 6-1 against the zoning change. But that isn’t the end of the story. The final decision rests with Clark County’s three-member Fiscal Court, which could consider an appeal as soon as Wednesday.
Opponents of the rezoning include two former Planning Commission members who do not live near the proposed quarry.
Chuck Witt, who served on the commission in the late 1970s and said he has missed attending only eight meetings since then, said at last Wednesday’s hearing that permitting a quarry on that site would be “the most egregious zone change that this county would ever experience. If ever there were an instance when a staff report should be rejected, this is it.”
Clare Sipple, who manages the nearby Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, agrees. She served on the Planning Commission from 2001-2011 and felt so strongly about the rezoning proposal that she helped arrange for Graddy to represent opponents.
“We’ve got no problem with the Allen Company itself — it has always been a good employer here — it’s the way they’ve gone about this,” she said. “It’s very political.”
If Fiscal Court were to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision, Sipple said, it would undermine Clark County’s whole planning and zoning history and process.
“You might as well throw the comp plan out the window,” she said. “Nobody’s land would be safe.”
The proposed new quarry site is the hillside around the clearing in the upper right of this photo, which shows the Allen Co.’s Boonesboro Quarry across the Kentucky River.