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Village Ploy Stops Goldmine

Incorporation stops property owner from pursuing mining on own land

May. 11th, 2005
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STANLY COUNTY — On June 26, 2003, Senate Bill 76 created the incorporated Village of Misenheimer. But the incorporation of 1.58 square miles and 739 residents is far removed from the typical incorporation” in both property rights issues, special interests, and history.

Two primary players in the campaign to incorporate Misenheimer, Charles Ambrose, president of Pfeiffer University, and Peter Edquist, a local resident, have told neighbors and local newspapers that they wish nothing more than to return Misenheimer to its traditional roots.

“The purpose of incorporation,” Ambrose said, “is to maintain the identity of Misenheimer and extend that as an economic engine.”

But to truly discover the identity of Misenheimer, we must start with 19th century resident Tobias Barringer. According to various newspaper accounts at the time, Barringer purchased the property around 1824. This simple, small plantation, by Southern standards, housed a few slaves and yielded a modest crop. One day while hunting squirrels on the property, Barringer noticed golden metallic flecks shimmering in astream. Digging into the adjacent stream bank, Barringer struck gold. Little did Barringer know, but he had struck it big — one of the largest veins of gold in North Carolina history.

Richard F. Knapp of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and co-author of Gold Mining in North Carolina described the Barringer Gold Mine as a “watershed event in US gold mining, moving the industry into the age of vein mining.”

The fortune of the mine, however, turned to tragedy in 1904. Under the ownership of Whitney Mining Company, eight men were killed in the mine when a heavy deluge hit the county Aug. 11 and flooded the mine. After the tragedy (and the ensuing lawsuits), the mine closed.

On March 25, 1998 Stanly County developer and entrepreneur Joe Carter bought the mine and nearly 240 acres of land. While clearing the land for development, Carter, much like Barringer, discovered gold. The discovery, combined with the hope of finding more gold, led Carter to hire the services of numerous experts who were to assess the practicality of creating a viable mining operation and establishing a new tourist destination in Stanly County. The experts concluded that the mine offered many valuable possibilities for Carter. Not only could this small portion of the land be used for excavating gravel and sand for highway construction, but, because of geological processes, the mine contained a thin, and in some places extremely pure, vein of gold. In their estimation, only 10 percent of the total gold in the vein had been removed. With current mining techniques, the remaining gold could be mined with minimal environmental impact, they said.

Knapp agrees and further believes the Barringer mine could become a historical site similar to the nearby Reed Gold Mine in Midland.

Halting further development on the land, Carter turned toward the possibility of mining the gold. While consulting with blasting experts, mining experts, trucking firms, and potential investors, Carter began to prepare for the lengthy and intricate process required to gain the permits from state and federal agencies to get Barringer Mines, LLC up and running.

Carter, along with additional investors, successfully earned both federal and state mining permits for his newly created company. However, when presenting to the Planning Board of Stanly County, Carter was denied the ability to mine. Residents feared the dust and noise pollution would harm their way of life. Carter was denied, not once, but twice by the Planning Board for permission to proceed, even after modifying his plans as advised by the planning staff.

In a final attempt, Carter was able to get a split decision to rezone his property from Residential Agricultural (RA) to Heavy Industrial (M2) with a conditional use permit. That final split decision led to a public hearing before the county commission April 8, 2002. He and his consultants illustrated their intent to create multiple businesses and dozens of jobs while staying within the state and federal guidelines for mining. During the meeting, Carter and his supporters ran into opposition headed by Edquist and Ambrose.

“The decisions this evening,” said Steve Smith, Carter’s lawyer, “should be based on facts. We understand there are fears and there are rumors, but neither are a sufficient basis to render your decision tonight.”

Numerous residents testified that they were worried about dust, blasting, cancer, and the disruption of their lives because of the mining process. Others feared that Carter’s real goal was to start a rock quarry, that the gold and tourism plans were a ruse, and that the actual intent was to quarry aggregate for construction.

Stuart Brashear, a blast expert with Dyna-Nobel, told the committee that neither dust levels nor blast sounds or vibrations would exceed state or federal restrictions. In fact, he said, that due to the use of a “wet mining process,” dust levels should not be an issue. Further testimony revealed that “blast sound and vibrations would be similar to that of a train” going through the community once a year.

Additional information showed that the aggregate being removed for highway use was a byproduct of the mining process and would create additional revenue. The aggregate was the rationale behind calling the operation a “quarry” by the opposition. The word “quarry” also appears on the mining permits.

Environmental engineer Paul Harrison, of the Moser Group, studied the impact on land value of properties adjacent to a mine similar to the proposed Barringer operation. “In sum, the perception of a negative impact of a quarry operation appears to exceed the reality of the situation in terms of values,” he said.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, hired by Pfieffer and a prominent legislative force behind the eventual creation of the Village of Misenheimer, maintained that rezoning the Carter property as M2 would “not guarantee that Carter [would] indeed use his land only to mine.” Because M2 includes other uses such as junkyards and chemical waste sites, Hartsell argued that the M2 zoning would not be “harmonious with Stanly County.”

County Commissioner Charles P. Brown attacked Carter’s creation of Barringer Mining, LLC.

“Barringer Mining, LLC is a limited liability company… and the objective of that is to… protect the investors from liabilities… if the mine goes broke, Carter and his investors can walk away from it, leaving the community scarred forever,” he said.

Residents voiced their concerns. Mike Harrin said, “if this land is rezoned M2, our community will forever be in the shadow of heavy industry.”

Carter himself seemed to sum up the commissioner meeting best. “We can all speculate on the ‘what-ifs,’ but the best barometer is what’s out there right now,” he said.

Ambrose provided testimony as to the beginning of Carter’s endeavor, saying they had had meetings about the original residential development that were positive. It was only after discovering the potential of the mine that the college began to have “serious concerns” and helped organize citizen opposition.

The county commissioners voted against the rezoning request unanimously.

During the late summer of 2002, the town of Richfield worked with Carter on a possible annexation strategy. Carolyn Lisenby, Richfield’s town administrator, said Richfield held meetings about such a possibility. If granted, the move would have allowed for the operation of the mine. Richfield Town Alderman Terry Almond also confirmed that Carter had worked with them in a move that would have allowed Richfield to annex the Carter property and proceed with development of the mine. He confirmed that there were councilmen willing to work with Carter for economic development reasons.

Concurrently, both Ambrose and Edquist went on offense. Edquist, as a private citizen and Ambrose, as president of Pfeiffer, started using their collective abilities to lobby support from alumni, students, residents, and Hartsell to take a different approach. They petitioned the state to create a new town to forcibly annex Carter’s property and stop the mine.

The net effect of the creation would neutralize any future rights Carter and his business partners would have to develop the Barringer mine for anything other than residential or agricultural purposes.

When asked about Carter’s property rights, both Edquist and Ambrose replied that being a “good neighbor” was important with respect to what one wants to do with their land. Both also have publicly questioned Carter’s character, referring to tax issues with Stanly County. JS Carter Inc. owes Stanly County $19,282.25. But the Stanly County Tax Office said that, although the firm is often late, it does not miss its payments.

The Village of Misenheimer was to be composed of a handful of small, individual lots, some churches, and two large tracts of land. Carter’s 240 acres became the largest tract of privately held land in the proposed village. Pfeiffer College is the other large tract of land and is exempt from property taxes. Proponents also saw a unique opportunity to rectify another lingering issue for Pfeiffer.

A decision rendered by the N.C. Court of Appeals in December 2002 (State v. Jordan), reaffirmed the position that Pfeiffer’s police force was impotent to enforce the state’s laws. If incorporation of the village were to succeed, Pfeiffer would benefit from a state-approved police force whose jurisdiction would include the university. With the creation of the village, Pfeiffer now subsidizes its police protection to the tune of $350,000 annually.

In Feb. 17, 2003, Sen. Bill Purcell filed Senate Bill 76, which had the support of the Stanly County Commission. In the documents submitted to the General Assembly, there were to be 150 permanent residents, 600 Pfeiffer students, 183 registered voters with signatures from 154 of that voter pool.

One of the requirements by the state government is that a “petition signed by fifteen percent (15%) of the registered voters of the area proposed to be incorporated” be presented to the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporations. According to age and addresses supplied by the N.C. Board of Elections, 39 of the 227 registered voters (17 percent) in the Misenheimer area for 2003 could be Pfeiffer students.

The legislation was hastily ratified June 26, 2003. Carter, based upon conversations with legislative staff, brought several witnesses to appear before a committee before final ratification. Upon bringing the witnesses to Raleigh, he was told that the schedule had been changed. He was never allowed to appear before any committee. Hartsell, who had represented Pfeiffer and Edquist, voted in favor of the village. In the haste to pass the bill, dates of municipal elections were set for 2004 and were later modified because they were in violation of municipal election laws that require municipal elections to be held in odd-number years.

Carter, via this legislative action, became the largest landholder in Misen-heimer. As such, with the rules in place, Carter cannot develop his land unless the village council, appointed by the legislature, approves it.

Edquist was appointed to be the mayor of the village until municipal elections later this year. Ambrose was on the council until he moved from Misenheimer this year.
Geologists, working with Carter, estimate that the mineral contents beneath the mine site may be worth more than $1 billion. But Carter, under the zoning put in place by Edquist and his fellow council members, can do little more than create a residential development.

Editorial intern Paul Messino assisted in the reporting and editing of this story. Chad Adams is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.