Cross-posted from the CCAN Blog
Dendron, Virginia, has more than its share of challenges. The community of around 300, located in the southern corner of Surry County, struggles with an outdated municipal water system, crumbling sidewalks and no major businesses within the town.
Prior to the Great Depression, Dendron had been a company town of more than 3,000, fueled by the lumber industry’s presence there. Private business thrived in a town that revolved around the processing and export of timber across the country. Despite its character as an industrial one-trick-pony, the town of Dendron had something to stand for, and an industry to be proud of.
Today’s Dendron little resembles that historic vision of the 1900’s boomtown. Largely forgotten by the industry that once supported a thriving community, and facing serious municipal and community problems, such as an unexpected $10,000 water bill, you’d think the small town would take anything at this point to give it an economic boost.
The Old Dominion Electric Cooperative assumed this to be true when executives within the cooperative approached Dendronites with a plan for a new 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant, the second largest of its kind in Virginia. ODEC presented the Cypress Creek project with the promise of new jobs, tax revenue, and the idea that one major industry would bring others to the cash-strapped community. Despite local environmental effects and immediate hazards to human health, ODEC worked to assure Dendron residents that they stood to benefit from such a plant’s construction. ODEC also assumed that they’d buy into it without any major hiccups.
The cooperative, which has endlessly dispelled misinformation concerning the proposed plant (see Hope for Surry Shines through smog, 3 June), encountered a major hiccup Monday evening. As the Dendron Town Council met for its second meeting to deliberate the adoption of an ordinance that would allow the coal-friendly county board of supervisors to assume the community’s zoning rights, tensions – and temperatures – began to rise in the small side room of the Dendron Volunteer Fire Department, the only building large enough to host the crowd of more than 100. Fans reading, “NO COAL PLANT,” undulated throughout, filling the room as it quickly approached capacity, and Mayor Yvonne Pierce called the meeting to order.
The last time that Dendron came to vote on the ordinance to retain its zoning rights, the atmosphere was quite different from last night’s. ODEC employees filled the June 2 meeting, creating an unbalance that went far from unnoticed. Taking up a large portion of Recreational Center’s front-row seats, ODEC’s presence was pronounced – and unwelcome.
This time, the Coalition to Keep Surry Clean, Wise Energy for Virginia, and students from the nearby College of William and Mary turned out, in force, to ensure that Dendron’s residents were given priority in the meeting hall by “saving spots” outside while locals arrived. Due to the efforts of Surry and Dendron’s concerned and active citizenry, last night’s demographic within the meeting was strikingly different from the month before. With upwards of 25 Dendron residents, supported by more than 50 folks from surrounding Surry County, gone were the suits and ties of ODEC’s Glen Allen headquarters, near Richmond. Gone also, was the attitude that a new coal plant would bring the economic boon of the 1920’s back to the struggling town. As the meeting progressed, the council made two key moves to ensure its independence as a town in determining its future.
In a somewhat surprise move, Councilwoman Misti Furr began by introducing a resolution to establish a planning commission within Dendron, to be charged with evaluating and granting zoning permits for land within the town proper. The vote was a necessity, as the council would be expected to vote on the zoning ordinance later that evening, which would greatly diminish the town’s control over its permitting process by delegating a large portion of it to Surry County. Furr’s resolution passed, giving Dendron its own planning commission, who will have to handle ODEC’s zoning permit, provided that control over permitting stay with the town. That decision remained uncertain, further down the evening’s agenda.
Before the decision over that ordinance came to vote, residents and concerned individuals were permitted to speak before the council and audience, and as the queue began to move along, a fascinating trend began to emerge.
Unlike last month’s meeting, where ODEC garnered support from its own employees and purposefully misled low-income and struggling families, Monday’s atmosphere was one much more aware of the terrible implications for environmental, economic, and human health that a dirty coal plant would bring to their small community. At least, it seemed, some of the untruths, dispelled by ODEC over the past few months, had finally been discredited, much to the benefit of those citizens in opposition to the plant.
This attitude was reflected in the council’s final vote, as the body decided to reject any imposition by the county on the capacity of Dendron to decide its own future. With a wire-thin 3-2 margin, a great sigh of relief gripped the meeting hall as ODEC and its cadre of supporters left the hall, flustered and frustrated. Now, ODEC will be required to submit its zoning permit to the town, where it will decide whether or not the plant will move forward, free from interference by the coal-friendly county, and totally in its own hands.
What will happen now is, for the moment, uncertain. The coal industry has deep pockets, while most folks in Dendron do not. The struggle against this plant is a long way from over, and the rejection of county control over the zoning process marks but a small step in a very, very, large fight.
When it comes down to it, this small community of immense personality wants nothing more than to retain control over its own destiny. It is far too often that the smallest among us are subject to the will of the larger, and this town has set out to prove that it will not be taken underfoot by an energy giant and its allies. Dendron today carries the same character, willpower, and deliberate sense of wholeness that its ancestor once had. There is no longer a lumber mill, and a much-diminished population, but the uprightness, the sense of pride, the ultimate concern for future of this town has not changed, and likely will not.
Last night, the town of Dendron stood up and made its will known. Coal is friend to no one, it lines the pockets of wealthy men and it brings poverty and sickness into every dusty breath of those who suffer it. If the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative wants to continue to live in a past that is outdated and unhealthy – if ODEC really wants a new coal-fired plant – they will have to fight for it, and from the looks of it, much harder than they expected.