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War over waste
Church fights proposal for neighboring waste transfer station

NORCROSS - There's an old saying for people of faith that says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And following that advice certainly applies to the members of the Roman Catholic Church known as the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs' Mission. Unfortunately for the church though, its neighboring land owners aren't showing they practice that same mantra.

With about 4,000 members, in two years the predominantly Vietnamese congregation has turned the property formerly known as the Timmers Chevrolet dealership located just off Beaver Ruin Road and its intersection with Interstate 85 into its sanctuary, Vietnamese language school and a place of worship. As church spokesman C.C. Nguyen likes to say, they put a lot of "sweat equity" into the property. And now these same church members are fighting like mad to keep their church and the surrounding environment free from the smell of garbage and truck emissions.

The reason for the fight is that the congregation is now caught up in a rezoning dispute with its neighboring property owners - JEM Land Development and Lancaster Enterprises. Working together, these two entities have petitioned the Board of Commissioners for a rezoning from light industry district (M-1) to a heavy industry district (M-2) to build a waste transfer station at the location, a move the church, the planning commission, the planning department, the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District and neighboring business and property owners adamantly oppose. What's interesting is the move to build the waste transfer station comes just a few months after the church signed an agreement with those same property owners that said they would voluntarily sell the group one acre of its land for a mixed-use development to be built on the site.

At last month's Board of Commissioners meeting, with outgoing commissioner Lorraine Green absent, the commissioners deadlocked on the vote to rezone the property 2-2 and ended up tabling the case until the Feb. 3 day meeting. At the time, Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said he wanted new Commissioner Shirley Lasseter to chime in since the property was in her district. At that same meeting, Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who supported the rezoning along with Chairman Charles Bannister, expressed concerns to the church that he was worried about them leaving the property after they outgrew it.

According to everybody associated with the church, the congregation isn't going anywhere - ever. Matter of fact, they eventually plan to build a brand new church on the same site and already have renderings drawn showing what the property will eventually look like.

"As soon as we pay off this property, we intend to run a capital campaign to build a new church, and everybody in the church knows that," Nguyen said. "It's coming and that was our plan in the first place when we moved in. We're not going anywhere."

The Archdiocese of Atlanta, which technically owns the property where the church is presently located, confirmed this fact and said it is not the church's policy to abandon sites once the congregations get too large.

"This community has plans to build," said Pat Chivers, the director of external communications for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. "And the Archdiocese is committed to long-term property use by the church."

To support the church in its fight against the rezoning, the Archdiocese plans to make announcements in each of its 11 parishes in Gwinnett this weekend urging parishioners to contact their commissioners to vote against the rezoning. Nguyen said their congregation is also formulating a petition that could have as many as 100,000 signatures on it to present to the commissioners prior to the Feb. 3 vote. Finally, he said the church plans to hold an all-day prayer vigil to pray the commissioners do the right thing Jan. 31.

"We're willing to work with our neighbor," Nguyen said. "But the general feeling here in the church is that maybe we'd be treated differently if we weren't immigrants. Our members feel very strongly about this case."

As for what the new district 1 Commissioner is thinking, Lasseter said she's in research mode, gathering information from the county about the need for a waste transfer station in Gwinnett. She acknowledged there have been a number of denials for waste transfer stations during the last few years.

"I don't know what the right thing to do is at this time," Lasseter said. "But we probably need two, three or four of these in Gwinnett so we need to figure out where they need to go."

The idea that Gwinnett needs more waste transfer stations is why attorney Lee Tucker, who represents the landowners in the rezoning, said the location next to the church is perfect.

"There is no residential property anywhere close to this site," Tucker wrote in an e-mail. "I cannot imagine a better location than this one in that it's surrounded by industrial property, is across the street from an active 350 acre rock quarry, and is located in immediate proximity to a highway interchange (Interstate 85). And it's almost directly across 85 from a recycling center on Satellite Boulevard."

The church flat out disagrees with Tucker's assessment that next to their church is a perfect location. They worry about the potential smells from the trash, especially since they are located about 40 feet above elevation from where the transfer station would be located. They also are concerned about the number of trucks that would be traveling daily up and down the two-lane Shackleford Road dropping off garbage. Simply put, they say there are just too many unknowns about the problems that this type of facility could potentially bring to its members.

"It's an untold health hazard and anything can be said on paper," Nguyen said. "What about Hotlanta in the summer? We're from Vietnam and we know about humidity," he said. "We know that with the heat those smells will rise. We don't care how much machines they have to control the smell. Reality says the smells will come up every day. And the noise from the trucks - we have daily mass. How are we going to bear that?"

Tucker conceded that nobody wants to be located next to a waste transfer station or landfill, but said the use for one in a county the size of Gwinnett is absolutely necessary.

"We generate a lot of municipal solid waste and construction and demolition waste in Gwinnett County as is evidenced by the county's attempts to standardize residential garbage service over the last few years," Tucker wrote. "It is common sense that the waste has to go somewhere and the fact of the matter is there are no available municipal solid waste landfills in the county."