Will Buckingham ban mining? Committee offers recommendation

Published 4:31 am Thursday, February 16, 2023

DILLWYN – Buckingham County should ban all metallic mining. That was the recommendation handed down Monday, Feb. 13 from the county’s gold mining committee. Representing the group, committee member Jordan Miles III presented the recommendation to his fellow supervisors, along with a motion to send the issue to the planning commission. 

“The committee has recommended that the zoning ordinance in the county be amended to remove metal mining as an activity allowed in any district,” Miles told the board. 

As part of that request, the county’s zoning ordinance would also have to be amended to define metals, so as to make clear what is and isn’t allowed. 

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That’s not something the board of supervisors can simply approve. Because this would change the county’s zoning ordinance, it first has to go to the planning commission. By a 6-1 vote, supervisors agreed to send this to the commission for their consideration. 

“I feel and the majority of the committee felt this was a really happy compromise,” Miles said. “This would prohibit any metal mining in the county, period.” 

Why was the mining committee needed? 

With just two meetings held, The Herald asked Miles why a committee was needed to review the gold mining issue, instead of just holding a hearing as a full board. 

Once the committee started its work, it was clear the direction it wanted to proceed,” Miles said. “I have been hearing for numerous months now how our constituents feel about this matter, hence the recommendation to the full Board on banning metallic mining in the county, along with defining what metals would be part of the prohibition. I am proud of the efficiency of our committee and our members’ input.” 

Miles added that the committee allowed members to drill down on the state report, which Miles himself helped write as a member of the Virginia gold mining workgroup and at least one other member of the committee previously reviewed.  

“We also wanted to hear from Joe Lerch, who serves as the Director of Local Government Policy with the Virginia Association of Counties, who was unavailable once before to speak to the full board,” Miles said. “The committee also heard from Ben Price with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Additionally, the committee, which included a member of the Yogaville community, was able to hear valuable input from our staff, including our county attorney regarding land use.” 

It’s worth noting that Lerch gave his presentation before to Miles and the rest of the state gold mining committee back in the fall.

Asking for alternatives in Buckingham

The one vote in opposition came from Don Matthews Jr. The District 3 representative had asked why additional solutions couldn’t be presented to the planning commission as well. 

“What would be wrong with attaching the rights based ordinance along with this (and) passing it to the planning commission?” Matthews asked the rest of the board. “Let’s (not) take it off the table altogether. Let’s do some research.” 

Matthews was referring to two proposed ordinances supported by the Friends of Buckingham and other environmental groups. The first, known as the “Prove It First” ordinance, requires applicants to produce one instance of a mining operation anywhere in the world, similar in type and scope, which succeeded in operating without poisoning the people and environment in which it was located. If they can show a similar example, they would be granted approval to operate. If they can’t, the project can’t move forward. 

The second, “Freedom From Toxic Trespass”, argues that people and ecosystems have a right not to be poisoned. In this case, they have a right to avoid being affected by the toxins connected with mining of any kind. 

Miles and the rest of the board said those two proposals weren’t needed. The zoning recommendation, he argued, addressed the issue. 

“I think this satisfies what the people are looking for,” Miles said.  

A question of legality 

Buckingham County Attorney E.M. Wright Jr. was asked by the board if it would even be legal to consider the two proposals Matthews referred to. Wright said he didn’t believe it would be. 

Virginia is what’s known as a Dillon Rule state. That means cities, counties and towns only have the powers expressly granted to them by the state. 

That’s where the problem stems, Wright argued. 

“In looking at the rights-based ordinance, there’s no premise that suggests the state has granted the authority to the county to adopt that,” Wright said. 

On the other hand, Wright said the county does have the authority to change its zoning and ban mining that way. 

His comments echoed what Joe Lerch told the state gold mining workgroup back in September. Lerch, who serves as director of local government policy for the Virginia Association of Counties, explained in September that counties can decide what is and isn’t allowed in zoning. “In a zoning ordinance, you can say that this is not allowed activity,” Lerch told the group. “Or you could say it is allowed in (a certain) type of district, like an industrial district, with a special use permit. If you want to say we don’t even want to consider it, that could be in your ordinance too.”

The closest the General Assembly has come to saying “you can’t ban mining”, Lerch added, was in 1984. At that point, legislation was filed that would have prevented cities and counties from banning the activity through their ordinances. However, that bill was rewritten, turned into something completely different by the time it was approved.

The Virginia Code also backs that up. In Article 7, Section 15.2-2280, the Code says that any city or county can “regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit and determine” what to do in four situations. The fourth is very clearly identified as “the excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.” 

Is there a gold mine in Buckingham? 

Currently, there’s no gold mine actually operating in Buckingham County. There is a group prospecting, however. In April 2019, the Canadian prospecting company Aston Bay Holdings announced they were beginning to search for gold in the area. 

To be clear, Aston Bay isn’t a mining company. It’s a prospecting company. That means they search for gold, silver or other minerals, identify and purchase a location, then sell that information (and property) to the highest bidder. They can do this because under Virginia law, prospecting doesn’t require a state permit if you’re searching for anything other than uranium.

In statements given in March 2019 and July 2020, company officials declared their drilling confirmed a “a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham, as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.” In other words, they found enough to keep going. At the beginning of 2020, the company secured the right to prospect on 4,953 acres of land in Buckingham County.

As for a timeline on when work might be finished, first it has to be restarted. The company hasn’t done any work in Buckingham since early 2020.

“We have conducted only preliminary exploratory drilling on the local landowners’ properties at Buckingham, and none for the past two years,” Aston Bay CEO Thomas Ullrich told The Herald back in September. “We have several quality potential projects, but a limited amount of funds. Over the last year and a half, we have been investing in the landowners in another county. We look forward to investing in Buckingham again.”

What happens next? 

Now the zoning change will go before the Buckingham County Planning Commission. The group’s next work session is set for Feb. 21, but it’s unlikely gold mining will make it on that docket this late, as there were already several issues to discuss. More likely, the issue will be brought up at their March meeting, then potentially coming back to supervisors by April.