An Alabama-based developer has sued the Carroll County Board of Commissioners over actions that banned mining operations on land which the company wanted to establish a rock quarry.

Birmingham-based developer Green Rock, LLC is proposing to construct a rock quarry on approximately 360 acres for mining and shipping at the intersection of Black Dirt and Hutcheson Roads near Whitesburg. The proposal drew considerable public criticism, especially from Whitesburg residents and those concerned with the project’s environmental impact on the Chattahoochee River.

The developer filed a civil lawsuit on Dec. 18 in Carroll County Superior Court claiming the Board of Commissioners made a change to the county’s zoning ordinance in August that had the effect of preventing the quarry from being developed. The county’s development director also denied the developer’s zoning compliance certificate, which is needed to get a surface mining permit from the state’s Environmental Protection Division.

The civil lawsuit

Green Rock is seeking a declaratory judgment, asking the court to allow the removal of natural materials to remain a permitted use on land zoned for agricultural use. In addition, the developer wants to recover any attorney’s fees paid during the litigation.

The developer also claims the county delayed the Development of Regional Impact process to “frustrate the developer’s plans.” Mining operations require these reviews by the Three Rivers Regional Commission because of their potential impact on nearby residents.

The developer said in the suit that the amendments to the zoning ordinance, including the new requirement that buildings and machinery be 1,000 feet from any property lines, “renders it impossible” for Green Rock to operate the quarry. Carroll County’s attorney, Stacey Blackmon, originally told the developer in May that if the development met the guidelines of the county’s ordinance, and no machinery was present within 200 feet of any property line, the quarry was permitted, according to the suit.

Green Rock is being represented by Scott Peters, an attorney with the Schreeder, Wheeler and Flint law firm in Atlanta. This is the same law firm that represented John Paulk, the owner of Shot Spot in Carrollton, when he sued the Board of Commissioners and Planning and Zoning Commission in 2018 for preventing him from developing a skeet shooting range and event center on Martin Cemetery Road.

In that case, Superior Court Judge John Simpson ruled in favor of the county commission and the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Both panels had denied Paulk’s request in November 2016 because skeet shooting ranges are not allowed on agricultural land within the county.

Certificate denied

Shortly after Whitesburg residents became aware of the project, District 5 Commissioner Ernest Reynolds met with them on July 2 at Banning Mills to discuss the proposed mining operation. He told residents who were upset over having no prior notice that the county was planning to change the ordinance to prevent the development of quarries on agricultural land — but the changes would not retroactively affect the Green Rock development.

On July 7, the Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a 60-day moratorium on accepting new applications and issuing land disturbance and other permits for the removal of minerals and natural materials. After that vote, according to the suit, Green Rock provided County Commission Chairman Michelle Morgan with an objection over the proposed change to the zoning designation.

During the Aug. 4 commission meeting, Reynolds proposed amending the county’s zoning ordinance to prohibit mining operations on agricultural land. That proposal was unanimously approved by the panel, and the county zoning ordinance’s language was changed so that mining operations would only be allowed in the industrial areas of Carroll.

In order for the state to approve a mining operation, a developer must have a letter by the county planner that certifies the developer’s use of the land complies with its zoning. But according to the lawsuit, this certificate was denied by County Development Director Ben Skipper on Nov. 19.

Without that certificate, the state Department of Natural Resources and its Environmental Protection Division will not grant Green Rock a surface mining permit.

In its lawsuit, Green Rock claims the county’s code of ordinances does not specify whether the denial of a zoning compliance certificate can be appealed or how the appeals process works. The suit says the appeals process is “constitutionally deficient” and does not provide Green Rock with any legal remedy.

In denying Green Rock’s application for a certificate of zoning compliance, Skipper noted that “rock quarries are expressly listed as a conditional use in the Industrial zoning district under Carroll County’s Zoning Ordinance,” the suit said.

The company further claims that “Green Rock has a clear legal right to the issuance of a certificate of zoning compliance. By failing to issue said certificate of zoning compliance, Defendant Skipper has failed to faithfully perform his official duties.”

Developer: County knew about plans

Green Rock was interested in buying the 362-acre property on Black Dirt Road early last year because the permitted use of land zoned agricultural allowed for “the development of natural resources including the removal of minerals and natural materials” if no machinery was present within 200 feet of any adjacent properties, according to the suit.

Conversations about the property began in February with Carroll County officials, including Carroll County Planner Janet Hyde. Green Rock said in their suit that county officials had known about the development since then when the commission voted in August to amend the county’s zoning ordinance.

Green Rock began making “substantial expenditures” in May for environmental testing and drilling on the property. The developer then submitted a Development of Regional Impact review on May 28 through the Three Rivers Regional Commission.

By early August, the developer had already spent $300,000 on developing the property for the quarry, according to the suit.

“By making substantial expenditures in reliance on assurances by Carroll County officials that developing the property for the removal of minerals and natural materials was permitted under Sec. 8.1.1(k) of the ordinance, and submitting a DRI application at the direction of Carroll County officials as the first step in Carroll County’s application, Green Rock acquired vested rights in the operation of a quarry,” the suit contends. “For the reasons set forth above, the ordinance as amended on Aug. 4, 2020, was discriminatorily enacted, and therefore unconstitutional.”