Factory Near School Becomes Election Issue in Mills River

Nov 2, 2017

Election Day is Tuesday for a number of municipalities across the state.  Polls will be open from 6:30am to 7:30pm.  Smaller races are often decided by much more local, personal issues than state and national races.  That could be true in Mills River, the small town 20 minutes south of Asheville in Henderson County.  BPR’s Jeremy Loeb reports an industrial factory being built across from an elementary school has become an issue in a race there involving the town’s mayor.  

Larry Freeman was elected mayor of Mills River in 2013 by his fellow council members.  In Mills River, council members select the mayor, so although Freeman is running for re-election in the town’s District One, it’s not a race for mayor per-se.  Freeman, a Republican, has an opponent in Democrat Brian Caskey, who’s running for the first time.  A few days back, Caskey wrote an extensive blog on his website raising concerns about a factory being built by Norafin Industries.  And I asked him to come talk to me about it.

Brian Caskey: “Norafin is a German company.  They use high-pressure water injection to create anti-ballistic vests, also flame-retardant jackets, things like that.”

Caskey says the company will be making something similar to Kevlar.

Caskey: “Now Kevlar is a completely safe product, except that when it’s cut, the fibers can cause respiratory issues, and we also know that when it’s heated, and that concerns me, because they’re making flame-retardant jackets, when it’s heated it puts out toxic gases.”

Norafin did not respond to a call and email in time for broadcast.  To be clear, BPR has no information to suggest that the plant poses a hazard.  But Caskey isn’t alone with his concern.  And the main reason is its location.

On a sunny Halloween day, dozens of 3rd graders are playing outside of Mills River Elementary School.  A teacher tells me it’s their third annual Pumpkin Extravaganza.  Just hundreds of feet away, across the street and just to the left, is construction of the 77,000 square foot Norafin plant.

The Norafin plant under construction in Mills River
Credit Jeremy Loeb/BPR

Molly Holliday:  “Nobody really knows what it is.”

Molly Holliday lives about a mile and a half away.  She also tutors at Mills River Elementary, and has two kids of her own that go there. 

Holliday:  “The teachers that I’ve talked to, I’ve heard several different thoughts of what people think that it is.  Once they find out that it is this factory, it is a little bit more concerning to them.”

Holliday, who identifies as a Caskey supporter, expresses the concerns I heard from several nearby residents. 

Holliday:  “You know we used to have this beautiful site that we could look outside.  And while our kids are playing and there’s recess, there was this big open field.  And now it’s this eyesore.  Why did it have to be here across the street from a residential neighborhood, and across the street from an elementary school?”

According to Caskey, the town has over a hundred parcels of land up for sale.  That particular parcel had to be rezoned from “residential” to “light industrial” for the sale to take place.  And here’s where Caskey says things don’t pass the smell test.  A planning board meeting in October of last year deadlocked in a 4-to-4 vote, which according to their rules, means the vote essentially didn’t happen. 

Caskey: “So the recommendation does not pass.  The next town council meeting, which took place on October 27th, 2016, they ok these two road improvement projects near Mills River Elementary.  They’re going to widen these two intersections to accommodate tractor-trailers.  They also approve the rezoning requests.”

So the town council acted without the recommendation of their planning board.  I asked Mayor Freeman why.

Larry Freeman: “The planning board a lot of times has maybe a different opinion from Town Council, but it’s the Town Council that makes the final decision here.”

So what’s the purpose then of the planning board if their recommendations aren’t taken into consideration?

Freeman: “Their recommendations are taken into consideration a lot of times but as I say it’s been our policy from the beginning, and the town’s now 14 years old, that the planning board is there for recommendations and the final decision is made by the elected officials of town council.”

So the council approved the project, as well as an incentives package for the company worth around $70,000, according to Caskey, after a closed-door meeting.  As to why council made this project such a priority, Caskey asks suggestively whether the owners of the land had any sort of relationship with council members.  But Freeman denies any sort of favors.   A check of campaign finance records at the Henderson County Board of Elections shows both Freeman and Caskey signed “Certifications of Thresholds,” meaning the candidates declare they will raise and spend a thousand dollars or less in the campaign, and contributions aren’t reported.  That’s common for a race in a small community like Mills River, and Freeman says he self-finances.  Freeman says the project was a priority because Norafin is bringing good things to the community.

Freeman: “$18.1 million to the property to the property and to the facility and for the equipment that will be in there.  And they’ll be creating some 46 brand new full-time jobs.  They’re committed to do that.  Norafin is a clean industry with no pollution.  Norafin would just be a good neighbor for Mills River.”

As to the assertion that Norafin is a clean industry, Freeman points to the various permits issued to the company.

Freeman: “Norafin received all the necessary permits to move forward in that vetting process.  All the bases were covered a year ago.”

A Larry Freeman campaign sign, with a Brian Caskey sign in the background
Credit Jeremy Loeb/BPR

But as to whether Norafin was carefully looked at for its environmental and safety impact, Caskey points to a council meeting about a month ago.

Caskey:  “One of the things that was asked was ‘Were any environmental assessments done?’  And Shanon Gonce, who’s on the town council… he’s actually stepping down… he said flat-out ‘No’ and people just about fell out of their chairs.  And he said ‘because if we had done an environmental assessment, if we had someone on staff, we don’t have the expertise here to do that, your taxes would go up, and no one wants their taxes to go up.’”

Freeman says those types of environmental impact studies are only done for larger projects like airports and highways, and that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality signed off on the project, but Caskey says a call to DEQ basically gave him the impression that the project was rubber-stamped without much scrutiny and says Freeman’s claims aren’t enough.

Caskey: “I would love it if somebody could come to me and prove that what Norafin is doing is 100% safe.  The emails that he’s sending out that they passed this check and that check and this check and that check… None of that indicates that what they’re doing is safe.  I don’t think that anything illegal was done.  I just think that it was lackadaisical in the way that it was handled.  It was rushed through.  I don’t know why.”

Freeman disputes it was rushed, saying Norafin’s been discussed for over a year now. 

Freeman: “And if anyone had any concern about Norafin, it was published in the newspaper, broadcast on the radio, and we had council meetings, planning board meetings, public hearings.  All that was available and open to the public.  No one expressed any concern.  No one, up until 3 weeks before the election, and that concern was served up by Mr. Caskey.  It’s sort of a reckless and irresponsible thing to alarm parents of those school students over a non-existent issue.  That’s just an unfortunate type of politics that we’ve never experienced before in Mills River.”

Election day is Tuesday.  Polls are open between 6:30 am and 7:30 pm.  To find where to vote, click here.

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After scheduling Mills River Mayor Larry Freeman for an interview, he sent us the following e-mail the day before we spoke:

 IMPORTANT MESSAGE FOR EVERY VOTER IN THE TOWN OF MILLS RIVER

You are probably aware of it already and are weary of hearing about

it/him, but Council candidate Brian Caskey is now taking his personal

agenda of lies, distortions, and just-plain-wrong facts about “clean”

industry Norafin to media outside Mills River, where much of his

campaign for our Town Council has been conducted.

We’vc been told that he’s asked to make his case against Norafin,

Mills River Council, Henderson County, the State of North Carolina,

the Department of Environmental Quality, and very agency that, after

exhaustive ”due diligence”…of which Mr. Caskey was never a part and

attended NOT ONE Planning Board, or Council meeting, or public

hearing…on the Asheville Public Radio station and reportedly to the

Charlotte newspaper.

Not a single meeting did he attend, or comment did he offer through

the process of properly vetting Norafin's purchase of property on

School House Road…until three weeks before the up-coming

election…clearly to frighten parents of Mills River School students

and people who live in the neighborhood who have not bothered to get

the TRUE facts about Norafin…into voting for him for the seat on Town

Council that the voters of Mills River have elected me to for the past

8 years.

1) Rest assured, I will respond to his radio interview, and any other

attempt to mis-lead the voters in the media. I will let you know where

and when.

2) The TRUE facts about the extensive vetting process are below,

please read and know them, spread the truth, and don’t fall for this

last-minute deceptive and obviously desperate electioneering by my

opponent to win a foothold on your Town Council and further his own

agenda that his neighbors in High Vista "is at play here"…and they add

thay he is “taking no prisoners”.

3) The TRUE feelings of Mr. Caskey and his supporters about the

agricultural heritage of Mills River have been made plain from the

beginning of his campaign…when he stated that we have too many farmers

on Town County…and that none of us…”look and talk like” him

4) A supporter of his expressed her/their true feelings about Mills

River agriculture when she published that we have “too many corn and

sod fields” in Mills River…for a a welcome neighbor and job creator

like Norafin to build on property (on School House Road) that they

purchased on the free and open market.

5) This is your last chance through 1 pm on Saturday to speak up for

Mills River and vote EARLY in the “one stop” voting at the Board of

Elections. And if you miss this chance, please be sure you vote on

Tuesday November 7th, Election Day.

THE FUTURE OF MILLS RIVER, AS WE KNOW AND TREASURE IT, IS AT STAKE

FROM THE HENDERSON COUNTY PARTNERSHIP FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:

Before Norafin acquired any property in Mills River, Andrew Tate with

the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, met

Superintendent Bo Caldwell, with the Henderson County Public Schools

in a courtesy visit to describe the project and address any concerns.

Mr. Caldwell, HCPS or the School Board at no time were asked to

approve or deny the project, nor did they have any official oversight

or review capacity. The meeting was held as a courtesy in advance of

the project to ensure and encourage compatibility in the neighborhood.

During that meeting, Mr. Caldwell identified three potential concerns:

1. Traffic, 2. Noise/Sound and 3. Environmental.

The Partnership shared that:

1. NCDOT would bring new resources to focus on improving

transportation infrastructure in the Banner Farm area. In addition,

Norafin agreed to work with the school system on specific traffic

routes, and would ensure that employment shift changes do not coincide

with school arrival and departure times.

2. Noise pollution would not be an issue. The company has external air

handling equipment, but sound would be minimal.

3. Environmental issues were addressed, as is the case with every

economic development project in Henderson County. The company would

comply or exceed all permitting and regulatory safeguards in

partnership with the North Carolina Department of Environmental

Quality.

The Norafin project has been permitted for the following items by the

following entities:

• Mills River Zoning Permit

• NCDEQ Erosion Control Permit

• Henderson County stormwater/watershed permit

• NCDOT driveway permit

• NCDEQ Regulation

• Henderson County Building Permit

• OSHA Permitting

Norafin also answered extensive questions presented by the Mills River

Town Council regarding noise, air quality, traffic, etc. These

questions and Norafin’s responses took place in a public meeting.

Norafin is establishing themselves as a good neighbor to the Mills

River community. Industry and schools peacefully co-exist throughout

Henderson County. If Norafin’s process had brought about any red

flags, particularly to the health of our children, none of these

entities would have encouraged growth on their current location.

Because the company has been diligent to go above and beyond

addressing any concern, we are honored to have them as part of our

community.

I hope this response further helps any questions about their

operation. Please let me know if I can answer further questions.

Thank you,

Brittany K. J. Brady

............................................

Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development