A few months ago, Joan Walne, chair of the city's Park and Recreation Board, sent a letter to the City Council to let them know that the board was not happy with a rock crushing plant right across the street from the $38 million Elm Fork Soccer Complex, which is set to open next year. They didn't like the idea of kids' being run down by lumbering trucks or having their lungs coated with gravel dust while they played.
The plant wasn't even supposed to be there, they noted, having operated illegally until 2006, when the city granted a specific use permit to Weir Brothers Inc., the company that owns the plant. Weir Brothers had twice been granted an extension of the SUP on the promise that it would soon find a new location. It hadn't, and now the company was seeking to extend its ability to operate on the land. The council was set to vote on the SUP on June 27, hence the letter.
That didn't happen. The item was thrice kicked down the road, finally landing back on the council's agenda today.
It quickly became clear during an 90-minute discussion that the council was more or less unified, at least in principal. Councilman Dwaine Caraway repeatedly steered the conversation to a similar operation off Lamar Street ("It's ironic to me that ... we're not saying nothing about Forest Park. That's a stone throw, less than 50 yards away from where these big trucks are speeding out."), but no one seemed to think it was a good idea to have a rock crushing plant next to a $38 million soccer field.
"We're gonna have kids from all over the world coming to that complex, and we don't want that next door," Councilman Sheffie Kadane said.
The question instead was how long Weir Brothers should be given to clear out. A representative of the company said he would need a year to wind down operations and would need an extension of the SUP for that long to continue operating while the process moved forward. They would even pave the gravel road to cut down on the dust, he said. Anyone who has "experienced the machine that does the rock crushing" knows it doesn't produce any dust.
Kadane questioned why anyone would pave a road they would abandon with in a year, and Councilwoman Vonciel Jones Hill called bullshit on the company's pledge to leave at all.
"This same company has stood at that same microphone as long as I've been sitting here and said the same thing," Jones Hill said. "If you tell me a fairy tale once and I fall for it, shame on you. If you tell me a fairy tale twice, three times, four times and I fall for it, shame on me. You have told me a fairy tale for four years."
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The Weir Brothers representative took umbrage.
"I am offended when we are accused of lying," he said. "We are not lying; we are doing exactly what is expected of us and we are doing it to the letter of the law."
Councilwoman Monica Alonzo initially proposed delaying a vote on the SUP again, but Kadane made a substitute motion: Deny the SUP and make Weir Brothers clear out in six months. Councilman Tennell Atkins questioned whether this was consistent under the terms of an existing settlement agreement with Weir Brothers. After conferring in executive session, Kadane amended his motion to give Weir Brothers nine months.
The decision means the gravel plant is no longer allowed to be at its current location, even though the city's not going to do much enforcement for nine months. It also means that the Elm Fork Soccer Complex should be gravel dust-free by the time it opens next September.