By Sarah Nagem
As a real estate agent and the owner of a horse farm, Sally Kennedy appreciates the tranquility in her southern Robeson County community.
A military training site, Kennedy told county commissioners on Monday, would shatter the idyllic way of life that many prospective home buyers are seeking.
“It’s very peaceful where we live,” she said, “and I hope it stays that way.”
Kennedy was among several people who attended the Robeson County Board of Commissioners’ meeting on Monday to oppose a company’s plan to operate a bomb-detonation training facility on roughly 610 acres of swampland near Rowland, along the South Carolina border.
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After listening for more than an hour to residents’ concerns about noise, pollution and property values, the board unanimously denied a special-use permit requested by STT Facilities and Alottabang LLC.
The vote was met with applause from the standing-room-only crowd, which sent a clear message to commissioners: They’re sick of Robeson County being a “dumping ground” for loud, smelly and generally undesirable ventures.
Kennedy said a potential client from New England was interested in buying a home in Robeson County.
“As soon as he learned there was a hog farm nearby,” she said, “he hung up on me.”
The owners of Alottabang, David A. Ricks of Florida and Danny James Ricks of Virginia, did not attend the meeting. Dixon Ivey Jr., the Robeson County community development director, told the board the applicant had a family emergency.
Ivey said the company had amended its request since the board continued a hearing last month. Under the new plan, he said, Alottabang would not detonate any bombs or munitions at the site while training bomb squads on de-activation techniques.
But some seemed skeptical, including Commissioner John Cummings.
“No explosions, period? So what’s he going to do?” Cummings asked, referring to the company.
Jeff Currie, the Lumber Riverkeeper, said concussive blasts would harm birds, fish and amphibians. Two fish species, including the Sandhills chub, are endemic to the area, which includes Shoe Heel Creek and the Pee Dee River, he said.
Robert E. Price, an attorney representing two neighbors, gave commissioners an 81-page report outlining concerns about the project. Among them, he said, was a lack of access to the site for Robeson County emergency responders.
Price said the company’s proposed plan to store bombs in “storage sheds” would be dangerous, particularly if flood waters deluge the area.
“If there’s a flood, you won’t have to worry about it – they’ll be in South Carolina,” he quipped.
The Dillon County Council in South Carolina voted in April to formally oppose the project. Leaders of the town of Rowland in Robeson County also were against it.
Robeson County Commissioner Pauline Campbell, who represents the district that includes the proposed site, made a motion to deny the special-use permit. She listed several reasons for the denial, including the potential to endanger public health and safety.
“We made the right decision for the county,” Commissioner Wixie Stephens said during a break in the meeting.
Mac Legerton, who serves as co-director of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development, told commissioners it’s about quality of life. The county, one of the poorest in the state, lost more than 17,000 residents between 2010 and 2020 – a decline driven heavily by the devastation of hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
“I love this county,” Legerton said. “But I’m concerned our county is gaining a statewide reputation for being a not very positive place to live.”
Kennedy said she sees southern Robeson County as a great spot for more horse farms. But she said newcomers must be willing to live near the Campbell’s Soup plant, along with farms that raise hogs and chickens.
She wants her kids to take over her farm some day. In the meantime, she said, “I get a bit tired of Robeson County being a dumping ground.”