“I can’t imagine anywhere else I would rather be than right here,” Otis McCrimon said as he looked out over the rolling hills of his homestead in Vincent, the place he has lived his entire life. “I’ve been here 72 years, and this is where I want to stay. I just wish I could do it in peace.”
McCrimon was cringing at thought of the 886-acre limestone quarry that he has been notified will be dug right outside his doorstep. Like many of his fellow residents, he feels that he was robbed and cheated by city and county officials, whom they accuse of selling their town to a Florida-based quarry company for personal profit.
The name of the proposed project, the Vincent Hills Quarry, strikes an ironic note with residents who know the company buying up the land fully intends to destroy several of those hills and replace them with a massive hole in the ground. The sobering fact that the name will then be glaringly oxymoronic is only one of several reasons residents of the River Loop are taking issue with what they consider to be the underhanded dealings by both city and county officials.
Vincent’s River Loop is the site of a project proposed by Florida-based White Rock Quarries. The area is populated mostly by black residents, many of whom are descendants of freed slaves who lived on plantations in the area, according to McCrimon. White Rock has acquired the land it needs for the 100-year limestone quarry and is currently in the process of applying for environmental permits. All of this is in the face of vocal and very visible opposition from many Vincent residents. Signs opposing the development are sited throughout the community.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of White Rock’s plans is that some of the land proposed for the quarry’s holding ponds — already fenced off by the company in preparation for the dig — contain the unmarked graves of slaves and other ancestors of the River Loop residents.
Maybe even more disturbing are the accounts that White Rock bought the homes and property of white residents near the quarry at inflated prices, but never offered a dime to black residents, leaving those African-American homeowners facing the prospect of living in uncomfortable proximity to a vast pit and having massive rock-laden trucks rumbling by their homes at the rate of 25 a day (not including return trips).
But even in the face of discontent over the quarry plans, White Rock has moved forward, winning the support of city council members, county commissioners and the Alabama Supreme Court. The project is heading for completion, with citizens of Vincent only able to sit and wait for the blasting to begin.
Residents wonder, how did all this happen?
A hole in the heart of Vincent
When the land that will become the quarry was first under negotiation, there was no mention of a quarry. Instead, several companies, such as Bio-Fuels LLC — which now have apparently been dissolved — bought the land from members of the community under the pretense, according to the McCrimon family, that an ethanol plant would be built on the land. However, sometime after the land was acquired, it wound up in the hands of White Rock to be used as a quarry, a sprawling 886-acre hole in the heart of Vincent.
“That’s how they got people to buy the land. They knew people out here wouldn’t want to sell their land for a quarry. They misled the people,” McCrimon’s wife Bonita said. “The people who bought up the land told us one thing, but really all along they knew it was going to be a quarry,” she said. Officials from Bio-Fuels could not be reached for comment.
There are actually two cemeteries in the River Loop, one just outside the perimeter of the future quarry, the other currently in an overgrown area nearby. While the Alabama Historical Commission has said White Rock just recently conducted a survey and acknowledged the cemetery, the graves remain on the proposed site of the holding ponds. Plans to remove the remains or to move the holding ponds have not yet been presented.
Unlike the other cemetery nearby, none of the graves in the holding pond area bear markings or headstones, but River Loop residents say that it is undisputed that they are graves, many of which belong to the descendants of freed slaves.
Like the McCrimon family and many of the other residents in the area, James Hamilton, 98, has lived in the River Loop his entire life. He knows the people who are buried in the unmarked graveyard. “I was born right over there,” Hamilton said, pointing from his aging brick home down the road. “I was born on the Bannister farm, right where the road cuts in,” Hamilton said in lively voice. Although his hands are a little shaky, Hamilton remains in remarkable health for his age.
“I know about three or four people buried there personally,” he said. “Starling Riggins and some other members of the Riggins family are buried there, who I am related to,” Hamilton said. Years ago, he explained, he used to take McCrimon rabbit hunting among the unmarked graves. What’s about to happen does not sit well with him. “This quarry,” he said in a quiet, somber tone, “is going to ruin this town.”
The National Historic Preservation Act states that if a proposed construction site has any evidence of historical or archaeological significance, a survey must be conducted before construction can begin. Since coming into effect in 2004, Section 106 of that law requires that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation have ample opportunity to examine and comment on the proposed construction site.
White Rock’s recent survey showing that there are human remains under the site of the proposed quarry also indicates there is a prehistoric well located where the company wants to put its holding ponds. That well is already listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
“Archaeological consultants have conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey of the area of the cemetery,” according to Amanda McBride Hill, a member of the Alabama Historical Commission. “It was concluded that the area does, in fact, contain human burials. The archaeologists have delineated the boundaries of the cemetery and have added a buffer around it. White Rock knows where the boundaries are, and the area will be avoided. No holding pond or any other activities will take place on the cemetery,” Hill said in an email in July.
The land where the unmarked cemetery is located still remains on White Rock’s property, however, and it is unclear what the quarry company will do with the remains located on their land.
Lawsuit filed, but officials keep moving forward
A lawsuit against the quarry proposal, filed by attorney Anne Gibbons, who owns property in Vincent, claimed the city did not go through the proper channels when it rezoned the land for the project. The lawsuit stated that the Vincent Planning and Zoning Commission changed the zoning code in September 2009 to allow for proposed uses not already covered under the accepted zoning code. Because of that, the suit said, the Planning and Zoning Commission was able to approve the proposed quarry for the land that White Rock had acquired without proper notice requirements. The lawsuit also challenged the town’s annexation of 86 acres of undeveloped land that White Rock owned.
The lawsuit was filed in the Shelby County Circuit Court on February 26, 2010. In July 2010, with the litigation still pending in court, the Vincent City Council voted 5-1 to grant the quarry company’s request to begin work on the 886-acre project. Ralph Kimble was the lone city council member who voted against the quarry.
After a year and a half of litigation, in December 2011, Circuit Judge Hub Harrington ruled in favor of the Town of Vincent. Gibbons appealed her case to the Alabama Supreme Court, which, a year later, also ruled in favor of the town of Vincent and White Rock, accepting the argument that they had properly annexed the 86 acres.
Rob Fowler, one of the attorneys representing the quarry, claimed the Alabama Supreme Court also upheld the legality of the zoning for the quarry. “A lawsuit was filed challenging the zoning, and it went all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court. The lawsuit stated that the city of Vincent did several things wrong, but the Supreme Court said, ‘No they didn’t,’ and upheld the zoning, claiming the town of Vincent did everything the way they were supposed to under law when they rezoned the property,” Fowler said over the phone.
That lawsuit is now over. As far as the legality of the quarry, residents have no legal recourse, Fowler explained. “[The plaintiff] filed a motion for rehearing simply asking the court to reconsider, and they denied that motion. So, in essence, that lawsuit is completely done.”
The lawsuit has, in effect, slowed the beginning of construction at the quarry, but now the only issue holding up the process is the application for environmental permits through the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).
With such close proximity to the Coosa River, there are environmental concerns about how the quarry will affect the groundwater and whether or not fugitive particles will be released into the river. White Rock’s waste discharge valve is located only about a mile and a half upstream from the intake valve for Jefferson County’s drinking water, according to the quarry’s zoning map.
When asked why there was such a long interval between the land purchasing and rezoning in July 2010 and the application for ADEM permits, Fowler said it was due to the ongoing lawsuit. “The reason there is that we were in the middle of litigation. We couldn’t go to ADEM and ask for permits for something we didn’t know was going to happen,” Fowler said.
During that same court-related delay, however, with the Vincent council having approved the work on the quarry, the Shelby County Commission took an action which suggests it knew the quarry would be built.
In a memo dated March 4, 2010, Fowler told the Vincent Planning Commission that “The Vincent Hills Quarry is principally a rail quarry, with significantly less truck traffic than the majority of other quarries in Shelby County, Alabama. Based on current demand, White Rock estimates that the total daily number of trucks leaving the site with product will be approximately 25.” About two months later, the council approved the project.
About a year later, on March 28, 2011 — while Gibbons’ lawsuit to stop the quarry was still making its way through the court system — the Shelby County Commission voted to widen County Road 62, re-purposing the road near the proposed quarry into a truck route. That route would take trucks through residential areas of Vincent, specifically through River Loop.
It should be noted that Lindsey Allison, one of the lawyers representing White Rock when the lawsuit was taken to the Circuit Court, was a member of the Shelby County Commission at the time. She chose to abstain from the vote to widen the road.
When asked about her involvement with the quarry company and the county commission vote to widen the road, Allison said, “I abstained from the vote. I didn’t vote for nothing. People have come after me every which way in America about that.”
Not one foot of black property sold
There is an underlying racial issue at play in the River Loop. According to the residents who live within a stone’s throw of the proposed limestone quarry, no offer was made on a single black-owned property in the area. As for the white property owners in the area who sold to the quarry, their land sold quickly and quietly for highly inflated rates.
Wanda Threatt is a resident who lives in the River Loop. She claims that the racial discrimination by the quarry company has left her community isolated and without any property value to sell their homes. “White Rock bought land bordered by blacks, but never from them. White Rock bought land bordered by Evangel Temple, but left the black-owned church untouched and devalued. The economic worth of white sellers increased. They moved away. The economic worth of blacks decreased, leaving us trapped by inequities. Our land is devalued — unsaleable. We face exposure to hazardous waste, air, water, noise and vibration pollution,” Threatt said in a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Now what I think is strange is that White Rock crossed the road to purchase land from a Vincent Planning Board member, Robbie Greene, and her parents, and paid them more than anyone else,” Threatt told Weld.
White residents began to sell their houses and property to Bio-Fuels LLC back in 2008, even before the city of Vincent was officially aware that a quarry would be built.
Robbie Greene was a voting member of the Vincent Planning and Zoning Commission that would approve the proposal for the White Rock quarry. She also happens to be the sister-in-law of Vincent’s mayor, Ray McAllister, and at the time, she lived next to the McCrimon family.
In 2008, just as the land for the quarry was being bought up by Bio-Fuels Holdings LLC — and the year before the planning and zoning commission voted on the quarry project — the Greenes’ home and 10 acres were appraised at $190,800. Another one of the Greene’s properties, a 32-acre piece of land, was appraised at $75,600, according to Shelby County tax records.
According to the deeds, the properties sold for a combined $875,000 on October 7, 2008 — more than 3 times the assessed market value.
On that same day, Robbie Greene’s father, Charles Gates, sold his home and 44 acres to Bio-Fuels Holdings LLC for $875,000 as well.
Gates’ niece, Ann Mclurg, sold her home and property for $800,000 on August 26, 2008, two months prior to Greene. According to Shelby County tax records, her home and property were appraised at being worth $119,940.
The combined payout to the zoning commissioner Greene and members of her family was $2.5 million. After repeated efforts, calls and messages left for her on her home phone, Robbie Greene has been unreachable for comment.
On the other hand, like many others living in the River Loop, McCrimon and his family never received an offer from the quarry company, or from Bio-Fuels or any related company, even though his house is within a 100 yards of where the quarry is to be built.
“We got a letter saying that if the company needed any more land in the future they would give us a fair market price,” McCrimon said as he walked the boundary of the quarry’s property that runs right next to his home. “They didn’t buy a single foot of black property. Only after the quarry is up and running is when they said they might consider buying our property.”
Although no black residents of Vincent have been paid or offered money for land near the quarry, records show clearly that White Rock or its subsidiaries paid out more than $11 million for land at the site before the city zoning board even recommended the project to the city council.
In black and white
In her letter to the Justice Department, Threatt outlines a trail of discrimination that leads right up to her doorstep. “While the mayor and each councilman have publicly stated they would not want to live near the quarry, and a member of the Planning Commission publicly stated they ‘did not care what happened to the people of the River Loop,’ the Planning Commission and mayor and council have no hesitation in placing the quarry in a black residential section of town, ignoring the wishes of the black community and a majority of our town citizens,” Threatt said.
In May 2012, just months before the Vincent city election, city council districts were rearranged. Bridgette Jordan Smith was the council member representing the residents of the River Loop. She had opposition from Threatt and many others who contend she was not representing her constituents appropriately.
“She has not represented us and would probably lose her seat in an election under present redistricting,” Threatt said. “With the redistricting plan submitted to the Department of Justice for approval, black and white opposition to her has been removed from her district and placed in Mr. [Ralph] Kimble’s, thereby increasing her chances of re-election and depriving the citizens of ‘the River Loop’ of fair representational strength. Opposition leaders have been redistricted out of her district and into Mr. Kimble’s,” Threatt said. Smith did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Charles Cantrell, a Vincent resident, spearheaded an effort to hold a recall election of the city officials in 2012. “I thought the city council was not reflecting the wishes of the citizens,” Cantrell said. “I personally spoke with 650 residents, most of whom were against the quarry.”
So how did the plans pass? And how did these city officials remain in office if an overwhelming majority of the town’s residents opposed their actions?
There is a loophole in Alabama’s constitution that allows city governments, like Vincent, who don’t use commission forms of government, to be exempt from the state statute for recall elections according to Ala. Code 11-44-130 through 11-44-134. Cantrell’s recall efforts were essentially thrown out and the city government stayed in office, even though 30 percent of the voters in Vincent signed the petition for a recall election.
Now, Cantrell is questioning the outcome of the city election.
Cantrell expressed frustration that Mayor Ray McAllister won his reelection by only 24 votes. “Some people in Ralph Kimble’s district who could have voted for the other candidate for mayor didn’t vote at all because Kimble ran unopposed. The provisional ballots were thrown out, and who validated the votes? The city council members,” he said.
Neither the mayor of Vincent nor any member of the city council other than Ralph Kimble responded to Weld’s efforts seeking comments for this story.
It’s hard not to notice the abundance of “No Quarry” signs when driving through Vincent. In some sections of town, they can be found outside every home. But only one member of the Vincent City Council voted against the quarry project: Ralph Kimble. For Kimble, the decision was simple. “It wasn’t what my constituents wanted,” he said bluntly. “In my personal opinion, I think the majority of the town is against it, and I know for a fact the majority of the people in my district are against it,” Kimble said, referring to the people in the River Loop.
Many residents of Vincent believe that city officials knew the quarry was coming long before the public was made aware of White Rock’s plans. “I really believe they knew,” McCrimon said. “And there was nothing we could do about it.”
Joey Cobb, who ran for Vincent’s mayor during the last year’s election, agrees. “I mean, I can tell you what it looks like just by the way they handled it,” Cobb said. “The city council met out of county with the quarry company. But they had it set up to where they were there at separate times and never enough for it to be considered a quorum,” Cobb said, referring to a meeting at the Bella Luna Lodge in Childersburg, a meeting that many residents reference when discussing how the city’s handled the quarry proposal.
“White Rock took the city council out to meet in Childersburg,” McCrimon said. “And they never denied that they had the meeting.”
Kimble was elected onto the city council in 2008. He claimed that when he first got into office, rumors of bringing the quarry to Vincent were already circulating. “When I found out about the plans I want to say it was already a done deal,” Kimble said. “It was my impression that the previous city council was aware of the plans for the quarry.”
Kimble also claimed that there were closed door meetings held between the quarry company and city officials that the public was never made aware of. “When we went to one of the meetings they told us that they didn’t want us to tell anyone what was going on,” Kimble said. When asked who “they” were specifically, Kimble paused, chuckled to himself and declined to comment further.
“They put a gag order on us. They told us not to talk about it and I decided that I wasn’t going to do that,” Kimble said.
Kimble’s claims that city officials knew about the quarry plans before 2008 raise questions about the land sales that occurred before the zoning commission ruled. For instance, did the mayor’s sister-in-law, a member of the commission, know about quarry plans when she and members of her family sold their property to the shell company?
Such questions brought Greene before the Alabama Ethics Commission. The commission ruled that she did nothing unethical, even if information she obtained from her position on the planning commission informed decisions to sell her property and her family’s property to White Rock or Bio-Fuels.
Official state sanction still doesn’t make such dealings palatable to all. “In my world perception is reality,” Cobb said. “It was done in secret, and they meant for it to be done that way.”
After multiple attempts from Weld to contact McAllister, there has been no response from his office with regard to these allegations.
The center of information?
There is a sparsely decorated storefront in downtown Vincent. The sign above the door reads “Quarry Information Center.” In the windows there are three signs that outline the positive aspects of bringing an out of state quarry company to the small town: 120 good jobs, millions of dollars pledged to the city and millions in contributions to Vincent High School facilities. The same information and more can be found on White Rock’s website.
One of the three signs is dedicated solely to the lawsuit that was filed against the town of Vincent by Anne Gibbons. By all accounts the sign, which was out of date when a Weld reporter and photographer saw it, seems to be using the lawsuit and the plaintiff who filed it as a scapegoat for holding up the quarry’s plans.
“The Alabama Supreme Court has yet to rule on Gibbons’ appeal,” the sign notes, “effectively delaying the $10 million in taxes, the 120 good-paying jobs, and other economic benefits to the citizens of Vincent.” The reason the information at the Quarry Information Center is so out of date remains a mystery. The job of running the center has been outsourced to White Rock’s Director of Government and Public Relations Kathy Copeland, who moved to Vincent from Florida.
When asked for additional information about the quarry project, Copeland said, “Let me check,” but only provided documents similar to what’s in the information center window and on the Vincent Hills Info website.
In bold letters, one of the information center’s signs reads, “Some would have you believe property values have declined because of the quarry. NOT TRUE!”
That may depend on whose property is in question. Cantrell, who spearheaded the recall petition of four of the five city council members, owns property directly adjacent to the quarry. He claimed that the quarry company stole the value of his property.
“The buyers of my property backed out after their third visit because of the proximity of the rock quarry. She said the blasting would upset her horses; she has asthma, and she did not want to fight a rock quarry. On her first visit, she stood in the backyard crying and said, ‘This is my house; it’s what I’ve always wanted,’” Cantrell said.
A sign in the window of the nearly empty information center reads, “Who do you believe? People who start distorted and untruthful rumors or rock solid facts?” For Cantrell, the rock-solid fact remains that the quarry is responsible for him losing out on a $1.1 million sale of his home and 131 acres.
“How do you lose money on a home like this?” Cantrell asked, referencing a picture of his beautiful plantation home. “Just put a quarry next to it.”
McCrimon looked out over the rolling hills just beyond his property that, for now, remains untouched and pristine. Oak trees stand tall, and green fields lie sprawled out in front of his home in Vincent’s River Loop. With his tone somber and his words well calculated, he said, “There’s nothing else we can do now. This quarry is coming. I just wish there was something that could be done. I won’t live in a subdivision. This is my home.”