JEFFERSON-While the County of Ashe has remained tight lipped on how much money it’s paying a Winston-Salem based law firm representing it in the ongoing Glendale Springs asphalt plant dispute and other possible cases, the opposition in one of those cases has shed some new light on this matter.
The Jefferson Post previously requested information pertaining to legal fees and the asphalt plant from the county via a records request, but was ultimately denied. The purpose of the request was to see how much the county was spending fighting the asphalt plant.
On Tuesday, D.J. Cecile, of Appalachian Materials, presented photocopies of checks and invoices between the county and Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice LLP. These checks were cut by the county to pay, at least in part, the legal fees the county has spent on a possible appeal concerning the issuance of a polluting industries permit to Appalachian Materials.
Altogether, the county has paid nearly $75,000 to that particular law firm, which is representing the county in the asphalt plant appeal. It is important to note, however, that Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice LLP could be representing the county in other legal matters unbeknownst to the public.
The money the county is shelling out to this one firm could continue as the judicial review in the case is still in the early stages and it could be up to another year before it reaches a judge. A court will ultimately have to determine if the county erred in not issuing a permit to Appalachian Materials to construct a plant, which would allow the installation to begin. After hearing of the county’s rejection to the Post, Cecile was able to obtain these records through the help of an attorney.
On Dec. 9, 2016, the Post submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to County Manager Sam Yearick’s office in attempt to gather that same information.
The county ultimately denied the paper’s request. The county cited attorney-client privileges as their reasoning in not sharing the information with the public although tax payer dollars are involved.
“Those records as pertain to this ongoing litigation are not available for public inspection pursuant to G.S. 132-1.1(a),” County Attorney John Kilby wrote in an email in December. “That statute provides these records maintain confidential for a period of three years from the time they were submitted.”
The Post did not ask about confidential information. The newspaper provided language that covered that redaction specifically.
When reached for comment about the legal fees, Yearick deferred questions to Kilby, who has yet to return a message seeking comment.
Boone based attorney Nathan Miller, who represented Cecile in his attempt to discover the county’s legal fees, said his request to the county for that information was not too specific, as he was aware the county could cite attorney-client privilege general statutes in thwarting his request.
Instead, Miller requested from the county all billing from attorneys to the county including statements and copies of checks from any other attorney from June 1, 2015 until Feb. 2, 2017. What he was most interested in was the billings from Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice.
As a result, Miller said he can’t confirm 100 percent that the billings from that one particular law firm exclusively pertained to the Appalachian Materials case.
Under the advice of his attorney, Cecile has declined to comment on how much exactly he is spending on the case, too. He did say his legal fees were “substantial” and exceeded the county’s current legal balance.
Checks and Balances
The checks date back to May 2, 2016. That first payment was in the amount of $4,254.50. Then, on May 26, 2016, the county cut a check of $11,713.50 to the same law firm. The legal fees didn’t stop there. Last September, the county wrote a check for $15,720 to Womble Carlyle and Sandridge and Rice LLP. That check was the largest to date, according to the records given to the Post.
On Nov. 3, a check for $7,410 was written to the firm and another one for $6,225 on Dec. 9. The last check made available to the paper was for $2,895 on Jan. 6. Invoices of $14,382.50 and $11,977.50 were also issued to the county.
County’s challenge slows to standstill
Any resolution concerning the planned construction of the asphalt plant could still be months, if not years away.
In late December, the county filed a petition of judicial review against its own planning board and Appalachian Materials – the company the planning board said should’ve been given a polluting industries permit by the county’s planning department in the first place. The county’s legal fees are footing the bill for this fight.
The county filed the order of judicial review in response to the planning board overturning a controversial 2015 decision by the planning department.
In October, the planning board overturned the county’s earlier decision that denied Appalachian Materials a permit to construct an asphalt plant in Glendale Springs. It was signed into order on Dec. 1, 2016 reversing the county planning director’s decision denying a permit pursuant to the county’s Polluting Industry Development Ordinance and affirmatively ordering the county planning director to issue a permit to Appalachian Materials, the case by the county reads.
The county is arguing the planning board exceeded its limited jurisdiction in issuing its order of reversal and overstepped its boundaries in trying to stop the county from enforcing laws as written.
Ultimately, the county is asking the court to conduct a judicial review of the planning board’s proceedings that overturned the 2015 decision.
To support its claim, the county is once again contesting that Appalachian Materials’ application for a PIDO was incomplete because it did not include all state and federal permits including, crucially, an air quality permit.
Appalachian Materials initially appealed the decision made by the county last year to deny its June 2015 bid to construct an asphalt plant in an existing quarry near a sparsely populated community in the southern end of the county. The company further claims the county succumbed to political pressure in imposing a moratorium on polluting industries permits.
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 846-7164.