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Berkeley County planners hear sides on North Mountain blasting request

May 20, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A company's request to move earth on the steep slopes of North Mountain west of Martinsburg to build storage facilities for explosives, blasting agents and other inventory has proved to be explosively controversial.

A standing-room-only crowd, both for and against the request by Falling Waters, W.Va.,-based Geological Technologies Inc. (GTI), urged the Berkeley County Planning Commission to consider their side in a public hearing that spanned more than 90 minutes.

The company has obtained an entrance permit from Tuscarora Pike's south side to 126 acres near Panther Lane, but the business' request for a variance from Berkeley County rules guiding development on steep slopes was tabled Monday night until the Planning Commission's next meeting.

GTI wants an exception to rules that stipulate that "slopes 30 percent or greater shall remain in their natural state," meaning no clearing, grading, cutting, filling or other substantial changes in the natural conditions can take place in a construction site, according to county regulations.

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Attorney Brian Matko said the company's plan for a 15-foot private driveway from Tuscarora Pike to the proposed storage facility pad sites would disturb 1.9 acres and had factored impacts on groundwater and other environmental concerns to keep disturbance to mininum.

Even if the variance and final planning approvals are granted, company vice president Benny Mitchell said Monday that the soured economy had already delayed the project's start at least until next year, if not later.

Heavily regulated by government agencies, Mitchell dismissed safety concerns aired by neighboring property owners and he publicly invited people to learn more about the company's business.

"You're more than welcome to come by the office anytime," Mitchell told those in the crowd who feared possible traffic-accident-causing explosions and a detrimental impact on the use of neighboring property.

In questioning by Berkeley County legal counsel Norwood Bentley, Mitchell said the company's use of Tuscarora Pike - a steep, narrow and curvy road - to the proposed storage facility would amount to additional daily traffic of several standard-size pickup trucks and a couple larger trucks, including a tractor-trailer.

The tractor-trailer's use of the road would be once a week "if that," Mitchell told Bentley. Founded in 2000 by him and Robert Adams, both of Falling Waters, Mitchell said the blasting and drilling company employs 65 to 75 workers and also operates in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Mitchell later admitted the company was wrong, but not intentional, to begin some site work on what was an old logging site and access road without the necessary county permit. The county issued a stop work order to bring the company into compliance.

Attorney Braun Hamstead, representing his clients retired Washington, D.C., attorney John Labowitz, his mother, Margaret and least two other property owners, urged the commission to use its discretion when asked to consider a variance request.

"This is not a case where the Planning Commission doesn't have jurisdiction," Hamstead said of the otherwise limited authority of the panel in the absence of zoning.

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