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‘Commercial prospecting’ may become by-right use

The Buckingham Planning Commission voted 5-1 Monday night, Dec. 21, to make commercial prospecting a by-right use in A-1 agricultural zones and M-1 and M-2 industrial zones.

If approved by the Board of Supervisors during its Jan. 11 meeting, the motion could allow for continued exploratory drilling in the county by Canadian-based company Aston Bay Holdings.

The recommendation comes after months of deliberation from county officials on whether or not to allow Aston Bay to continue its operations.

While the company had been performing core sampling in search of gold in the county for years, officials were unaware of the activity until mid-2020. Since core drilling is not an explicitly permitted use in an A-1 agricultural district, the county instructed Aston Bay to temporarily cease operations.

Since then, public comment during county government meetings has been largely overtaken by citizens concerned the gold prospecting activity, if allowed to continue, could lead to the establishment of an open-pit mine. Residents were also concerned the drilling may affect the local water table, with some people even suggesting the activity was causing neighboring wells to run dry.

Due to concerns surrounding mining possibilities, the board asked the commission back in late November to schedule a public hearing to consider taking the use of mining with a special use permit out of the A-1 and A-C districts entirely in order to align with the county’s comprehensive plan to maintain Buckingham’s rural integrity.

But many county officials, a panel of local experts and residents alike pointed out the decision would likely do more harm than good. In a county that benefits from several other mineral mines, doing away with mining would potentially deter any other companies from wanting to bring their business to Buckingham.

Experts also had concerns about the county potentially requiring a special use permit (SUP) to conduct core sampling activities.

At its Monday, Dec. 21, meeting, the Planning Commission regathered a panel of experts to further discuss the subjects of core drilling and mining. This time, guest speakers also included Aston Bay CEO Tom Ullrich and Kendall Fountain, a representative from Weyerhaeuser, an American timberland giant and owner of the land on which Aston Bay had been performing the drilling.

With board members in attendance, commission members asked Ullrich to make his case, inquiring what the company had actually been up to in Buckingham.

In providing some background information, Ullrich said Aston Bay, a small company with just two employees, is a business centered around early stage mineral exploration, not mining.

Ullrich said the exploration conducted in the county had been done so at the invitation of local landowners, adding that the company partners with landowners to come in and do the exploration at their expense and on their behalf.

According to Ullrich, Aston Bay spent the last year and a half partnering with two local landowners and conducting three exploration programs totaling approximately 23 exploratory drill holes in addition to some surface soil sampling and rock sampling.

He said while the company had invested more than $1 million into the county exploration, the activities had no adverse environmental impact and had cost the county nothing, although the locality could stand to benefit from the work in the future.

He emphasized there had been no intention by Aston Bay to conduct a sneaky operation.

“We conducted our drilling programs under the true and well-founded belief that no permits or other permission was required.”

Weyerhaeuser rep Fountain told commissioners the timber company owns 11 million acres of land throughout the U.S., with 69 active mining operations taking place on its land across the country. Just this year Weyerhaeuser completed 20 exploration agreements.

Fountain said he’d never seen another instance of a county wanting to treat core drilling as a special use, adding that the company believes drilling has always been approached as a preliminary due diligence activity to see if a property is viable for another purpose, such as mining.

Rob Lanham, an aggregates program manager with the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, told the commission requiring an SUP for core drilling would be an absolute deterrent for other operations looking to come to Buckingham County. He said drilling, which is a requirement for a variety of projects, should be viewed as an investigation activity.

David Spears, a state geologist with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, told commissioners after speaking with a geologist associated with the project he learned Aston Bay had been using approximately 2,700 gallons of water a day to obtain the core samples, about the same as a garden hose running for three hours. And that’s across a footprint in excess of 2,500 acres.

Other panelists expressed doubt that Aston Bay’s drilling would be affecting the aquifer or causing well issues.

In the past, county officials have heard from experts that the chances of a gold mine actually being established in the county were quite low, less than 5%.

Monday night, Fountain told the commission throughout the core sampling process the primary use of the land was to grow and manage trees. He said in all likelihood the land would continue to be used for that purpose in the future.

Ullrich told commissioners and supervisors he couldn’t say yet whether or not the land would ever become a mine.

After just under two hours of discussions, District 7 Supervisor and Planning Commission Board of Supervisors Representative Danny Allen offered a motion to add commercial prospecting to A-1, M-1 and M-2 zones as a by-right use.

Allen also presented a second motion to add a definition in the zoning text for “registered commercial prospecting” as “the exploration of material included but not limited to mineral, stone, gas or rock by commercial purposes by drilling, excavation or other land disturbance activities for commercial purposes by the entity that has provided the following information to the zoning administrator: the name, contact information, location of prospecting, method of prospecting and length of time and activity.”

Both motions passed 5-1 with the only dissenting vote coming from District 2 Commissioner Ashley Shumaker.

The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors agreed to hold a joint public hearing on the matter Monday, Jan. 11.