The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted down a controversial proposal to lease the county landfill to a private startup Wednesday night following passionate testimony from the affected community, environmentalists and concerned citizens.
The audience erupted in cheers as two out of three commissioners voted to "eliminate Green Hill P3 from consideration in the process of determining the future of our Newton County solid waste disposal site."
The motion made by District 1 Commissioner John Douglas also instructed a citizen solid waste panel created to study the issue to "continue with their efforts...to protect the Spring Hill community, stop the loss of revenue...and...find a model of how to manage our solid waste disposal site and/or search out other companies that may be willing to provide a bid for services to Newton County."
District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims voted in favor of Douglas' motion, with District 5 Commissioner J.C. Henderson voting against it.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz left Wednesday’s meeting early but expressed support for Douglas’ motion before her departure. Commissioner Levie Maddox was not present.
In addition to taking over operation of and upgrades to the county landfill, Green Hill was also offering to resolve a lawsuit with the East Georgia Land & Development Company, which, in 2014, won a 17-year legal battle for documentation from the county that would allow it to apply to build a private landfill on a large tract it had acquired next to the county landfill.
East Georgia announced Wednesday that it would move forward with plans to build a private landfill and seek damages from the county following Green Hill's decision to pull its proposal before Wednesday's vote.
Opponents of Green Hill P3 far outnumbered the few who spoke out in favor of an amended proposal from the company that would have granted the Spring Hill community, which is located next to the landfill, a park with amenities, including a community center.
"We feel insulted that Green Hill would think that offering a park, community center and a 50-acre parcel of land would offset them bringing in triple the trash," said Egeniece Lackey, who lives in Spring Hill and recently bought land there to build her "dream home."
Lackey went on to say that the local community should not have to pay the price for the "mismanagement" of the landfill or the fact that the county lost the East Georgia lawsuit.
"We, the Spring Hill community, demand that you repair and correct the existing problems at the landfill" and explore green options, she said. "If the county is not capable of handling their landfill and their lawsuit, we, the Spring Hill community, want the county to open the process so that companies other than Green Hill can present their proposals on how they would make corrections and handle our future waste."
Lackey then asked those in agreement to stand, leaving very few in their seats.
Other speakers accused Green Hill of "divisive" tactics that pit family members against each other in its campaign to gain support in Spring Hill.
Those in favor of Green Hill's amended proposal expressed skepticism toward the county based on its history. The Environmental Protection Division has approved a corrective action plan for groundwater and air contamination at the landfill, but the county has made little if any progress towards completing the first step, which must be done by 2017.
"It was either Green Hill or the county, and the county has had this problem for 20 years and hasn't done anything," said Charles Johnson. "Whoever comes in, they are not going to do anything for this community."
Speaking after the vote, Reverend David Johnson said the only option that had been presented was Green Hill’s, and took issue with what he said was the commissioners’ failure to communicate.
“When you let the people know what’s going on, you don’t have this type of environment,” he said, referring to the evening’s heated exchanges. “When you sit and you’re doing things and don’t return people’s phone calls and keep things to yourself, what do you expect to happen?”
Johnson said the community was in need of prayer to overcome the bitterness of the past few months and find a solution.
Tonya Bechtler, chair of the Yellow River Water Trail, said she was "extremely excited" about the board's decision.
"The divisiveness and the toxicity of Green Hill has been overwhelming, and it's been a distraction to actually finding solutions to the problems,” said Bechtler.
Of East Georgia’s lawsuit, she said: “Newton County doesn’t bow down to bullies.”
She also called for new legal counsel to represent the county.
Mayor Arline Chapman of Porterdale, an outspoken opponent of the Green Hill plan, was also pleased with the vote.
“I think that the county commissioners heard the voice of the people and they have responded, and that is very, very encouraging,” she said.
Neither Tee Stribling of Green Hill nor the Ministers Union, which had threatened to march in support of Green Hill, were in attendance.