Harford County Council votes to deny proposed Joppa pyrolysis plant

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The Harford County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board of Appeals, voted unanimously at its Tuesday night meeting to uphold a zoning hearing examiner’s July ruling that a proposed pyrolysis plant that would recycle used tires by breaking them down, does not conform with the zoning of the property in Joppa where it is proposed, meaning it cannot be built there.

The appeals board is Harford County’s final arbiter of zoning matters. Auston Transfer and Processing LLC, the company seeking approval to build the plant on 6 acres it owns at 1202 Pauls Lane, could appeal the decision to the Harford County Circuit Court, according to Councilman Mike Perrone, whose district includes Joppa.

Auston already operates a transfer station on that site, which is zoned for commercial and industrial use. The company, founded in 1990, handles scrap tires and construction debris there, according to its website.

The pyrolysis plant would be used to recycle tires by shredding them and then breaking down the materials through high heat to turn them into new byproducts such as crude oil and steel.

The council issued its decision Tuesday, about two weeks after it heard arguments from Auston’s attorney, Jefferson L. Blomquist, and citizen opponent Charles Lembach, of Joppa, during a hearing Sept. 18. Lembach, who filed an appeal with the county and is one of many residents of Joppa and other parts of Harford County, who have opposed the project, citing concerns related to harm to the environment, public health and increased traffic.

County Planning Director Bradley Killian determined that the plant is a permitted use, by right, in the commercial industrial (CI) district as it falls under the petroleum and coal products designation in the county’s zoning code. Killian relayed those findings to Lembach in a Nov. 27, 2017 letter.

Lembach appealed the planning director’s finding. Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe determined in his ruling, issued July 19 after hearing arguments in April and May, that pyrolysis does not fall under permitted uses for commercial industrial zones, thus reversing Killian’s findings.

County Councilman Joe Woods made a motion Tuesday night to uphold the zoning hearing examiner’s decision, which Councilman Jim McMahan seconded.

County Councilman Mike Perrone said during the discussion portion following the motion and second that he would keep his personal opinions out of his comments since he and his colleagues were acting in their role as members of the appeals board, not the County Council.

He did, however, quote two paragraphs from Kahoe’s conclusion.

“The Director assumes an obligation which he does not have,” Kahoe wrote, referring to Killian. “Indeed, he exercises a power which he does not have. He cannot legitimize a use that is not materially similar to an existing permitted use. It is incorrect as a matter of law for him to attempt to do so.”

“However, and perhaps more to the point, the Director was incorrect in finding that a pyrolysis plant is allowed by the Harford County Zoning Code,” Perrone continued, reading Kahoe’s conclusion. “The primary purpose of the proposed pyrolysis plant is to destroy scrapped tires. Its primary purpose is not to manufacture products of petroleum and coal.”

Perrone said he agrees with the zoning hearing examiner “completely.”

All seven council members then voted in favor of Woods’ motion.

“The council, acting as the Zoning Board of Appeals, supports the decision of the hearing examiner,” Council President Richard Slutzky said.

The Auston company is “contemplating whether to appeal the decision,” according to a company statement provided by Blomquist Thursday.

“Unfortunately, the Board of Appeals made a ruling contrary to the plain language of the Zoning Code,” according to Auston’s statement. “Locating a pyrolysis facility in the middle of a Commercial Industrial district less than a mile from Interstate 95 and adjacent to the railroad tracks is an ideal location.”

Company officials noted that the pyrolysis process “produces high-value natural resources (carbon black and Brent Crude) from scrap tires, thereby renewing otherwise non-renewable resources.”

“Protestants attempted to raise public health issues relative to proposed air emissions,” the statement continued. “That is an issue to be addressed solely by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) pursuant to its air permitting process. If the proposed facility poses a significant health risk at the proposed location, MDE will deny the necessary air permits.”

Lembach could not be reached for comment before press time Thursday, but many people wrote celebratory posts on the Stop the Tire Pyrolysis Plant in Joppa, MD page on Facebook after news of the council’s decision broke.

“Yea! The people's voices were heard,” poster Linda Pollock wrote. “Thanks to all who gave their voices.”

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