Thursday, June 24, 1999

Boone Co. can afford to say no to mine

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Martin Marietta Materials Inc. wants to be liked. Popular, even.

        This is no small ambition for a company whose product is called “aggregates.”

        These are the bits of stone, gravel and sand that eventually become concrete and other materials. People don't associate aggregates with parties. But at Martin Marietta, the public relations guy spends much of his time throwing picnics, organizing concerts and the like.

        Recently, one of these shindigs got written up in trade magazine Stone Review. Martin Marietta sponsored a symphony concert at its limestone quarry near Indianapolis. Stone Review called it “an awesome portrayal of the crushed stone industry.”

        Well. With such heady reviews, it's no wonder John Schuler is distressed by the company's reception in Boone County.

        He's the public relations guy. His employer prides itself on being neighborly, but in Northern Kentucky, it may never get the chance. Martin Marietta has run into an obstacle as tough as the rock it wants to blast: Boone Countians who like their community the way it is and live in a region where new industry isn't desperately needed.

        Martin Marietta wants to open a limestone mine near Interstate 275 and Petersburg Road.

        In poorer parts of Kentucky, businesses enjoy a different dynamic. People need jobs. If they oppose the opening of a mine, they oppose their unemployed neighbors, too. Coal companies in eastern Kentucky used this reality to play citizens against each other and neutralize opposition.

        We're lucky in this part of the state. With prosperity comes the luxury of planning our communities and occasionally saying no.

        Limestone is an important ingredient in lots of stuff, Mr. Schuler says: Concrete, asphalt, antacid tablets, farm fertilizer. Each year, the average person comes in contact with eight to 10 tons of it. “It's even in toothpaste,” he says.

        The reaction in Boone County: Whoop-dee-do.

        Martin Marietta has faced an uphill battle from the get-go. First it had to force county officials to create a zone for underground mining. Now it's seeking a zone change for the property in question. A final decision may not come until September.

        Angry citizens have packed public hearings and started a fund for legal expenses.

        “Dear planning commissioners,” mine opponent Jennifer Warner wrote. “It's your choice — sell out northwestern Boone County to become an industrial dump or retain its scenic beauty, historic value and character for future generations.”

        Her six-page missive attacks Martin Marietta's reassurances about blasting. The letter cites problems encountered around other limestone mines, but it doesn't mention any operated by Martin Marietta.

        Mr. Schuler is a bit exasperated. The usual gestures of goodwill aren't working here.

        By contrast, one of the company's stone quarries near Columbus is so well-accepted that a developer is building 75 homes near it, he says. On July 2, Martin Marietta is inviting the quarry's neighbors to a picnic at the site, where they'll watch the city's fireworks from one of the best vantage points in town.

        It all sounds very pleasant. But Martin Marietta does have critics outside of Boone County.

        In Clinton County, near Wilmington, Ohio, 15 property owners sued the company two years ago to stop a mine. A state commission revoked the company's permit. Martin Marietta has appealed.

        “I always thought this was America,” Mr. Schuler says. “And if we could go in and show that we were good neighbors and could be responsible, that we had a right to be in business.”

        Kentuckians are a fiercely independent lot, and entrepreneurial freedom is a principle many hold dear. This case will test that principle against the simple desire for a rural community to stay the same.

        It's the sort of struggle that can't be minimized by serving up hot dogs and symphony concerts. In Northern Kentucky, we have the leverage to say no, and all the public relations in the world may not be enough.

        Karen Samples' column appears Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer.


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