There's a collection of industrial plants on one side of Jones Sausage and residential neighborhoods on the other. Most of the nearby residents make little money and are people of color. The rezoning request to store hazardous material became the first test of Raleigh's new push for environmental equity.
In this pocket of southeast Raleigh tucked between I-40 and Jones Sausage Road, residents like Virginia Norman have a rocky relationship with their industrial neighbors a few hundred feet away -- like the time a chemical leak scare from one of the plants near her home forced neighbors to shut off their water.
"I don't feel safe. I bathe my children and I cook with this water," Norman said.
Last week, another nearby plant, a company called LivGroup, LLC, which refines raw botanical materials at its site on Conquest Drive appeared before the Raleigh Planning Commission. The company wants to rezone the property to allow for bulk storage of methanol ethyl acetate. It's not a toxic chemical, but it's an ignitable hazardous material.
"Essentially the only reason we are going to the higher (zoning) designation here is to accommodate these (storage) tanks," LivGroup legal counsel Amanda Hambrick told the commission at its May 25 hearing.
A company’s recent rezoning request to allow for storage of hazardous materials near a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood in SE Raleigh has become the first test of the city’s new environmental justice development policies • AT 11#abc11 pic.twitter.com/zXXzjQgtZx— Joel Brown (@JoelBrownABC11) June 5, 2021
Raleigh's new racial equity measures for development were adopted in May. LivGroup's request was one of the first opportunities to see them put to the test. Planning commission staff is now required to answer a series of questions for every applicant: If the area has historical incidences of racial discrimination; If residents have disproportionately low life expectancy; And who those residents are. In this case, it was more people of color and more lower-income people.
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The planning commission had serious concerns.
"It especially doesn't feel right in this part of town," said Planning Commissioner Michelle McIntosh. "I don't think we would be considering this in north Raleigh."
"What I am not comfortable with is prioritizing commerce over the quality of life of citizens, of residents," said Planning Commissioner Shelley Winters. "Especially when we are talking about disenfranchised citizens."
After an hour-long discussion, the commission voted to deny LivGroup's request.
"This is a really really big deal," said Dr. Danielle Purifoy, board chair of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN). The non-profit advocates for communities impacted by toxic industry and unwanted land use. NCEJN takes on companies who for decades tended to locate in low-income and communities of color.
Purifoy's group has been trying unsuccessfully for years to beef up environmental justice regulations at the state level.
"So to see a local jurisdiction actually successfully take this on and enforce it in a way that is actually meaningful is groundbreaking, frankly," Purifoy said.
The planning commission's denial is not binding. The real test of Raleigh's new environmental justice measures will come later when the request goes before city council.
Nevertheless, Purifoy said Raleigh's initiative is a "massive step" toward more environmental justice in North Carolina development.