Officials clear their names

Published 7:15 am Wednesday, August 8, 2007

By By Adrienne McKenzie
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
That is what the owners of C&S Chemicals are quickly learning.
Concerned residents in both Freemanville and Atmore are criticizing the Georgia-based company for its choice of property to locate a 7,000-square foot chemical plant on Woods Road. The lack of zoning ordinances in the area has allowed for the company to proceed with site prep for the facility and will allow for construction and later operation of the facility.
But the question on many of the minds of residents and elected officials is how did they learn of the property?
"We found this area to locate next to the railroad tracks on that specific railroad, it was shown to us by the economic development people," C&S Chemicals president Rob Chandler said. "We felt like they wouldn't be showing us a piece of property if they did not want economic development there."
Local industrial development officials beg to differ.
"I did not show them the Woods Road property," said Marshall Rogers, Escambia County Industrial Development Authority executive director. "I showed them another piece of property in the county. Then they went with a realtor to look at the other piece."
Wiley Blankenship, director for Coastal Gateway Economic Development Authority, agrees with Rogers. In fact, Blankenship said he had to "get out a map" in order to locate the property in question.
"I have never even been to the property," he said. "I have never stepped foot on the property that they ended up purchasing."
According to Blankenship, officials with C&S Chemicals, who were seeking a site for their plant, called his office about eight months ago.
"They wanted to look at sites on rail or with a rail spur," Blankenship said. "I gave them a piece of property in Conecuh County."
Blankenship said the site proposed did not meet the criteria of C&S Chemicals, so he began an "inventory search" for property. He said he and Rogers showed the company a site in Repton, two sites in Monroe County and sites in the Atmore Industrial Park.
"Those are the only sites we showed," Blankenship said. "The only properties that Marshall and I ever show are properties that are in industrial parks or that have been deemed industrial properties. If we've got an option on a piece of property, we will show it. We do not show private realtor properties."
At a public meeting Monday evening at Escambia County Middle School, Chandler and his two brothers, who are also his business partners, were questioned about how they located the property.
"Marshall took me around to look at different sites," business partner Mike Chandler said. "I worked with the Escambia County Economic Development Board and the Coastal Gateway Economic Development Board. We looked in several different locations, probably 10, and I was put in touch with the realtor about this facility. We looked at facilities in Repton, in Monroe County and the Atmore Industrial Park. They showed us several facilities."
A follow-up phone call Tuesday afternoon revealed the truth. According to Rob Chandler, Rogers and Blankenship did show them the properties they stated they did and they were not suitable to their standards. He also said that the purchased property "was not shown to us," but did say industrial officials did mention that there was property in the area.
"They did not choose any of the sites that we recommended and showed them," Blankenship said. "When they called me and told me that they had found a piece of property I had to get out the map to find out where it was located. They found this site completely on their own. I can't stop them."
Blankenship then received a phone call from the Chandlers asking for information on names of engineering firms and what the procedures were for obtaining county and municipal permits and license. Blankenship informed them that if the property was in the county, no zoning was in place.
"To the defense of C&S, they were flabbergasted that they did not have to go through a zoning process or zoning approval for that location," Blankenship said. "They are a Georgia company and in Georgia they have zoning."
During Monday's meeting, Atmore mayor Howard Shell said that he was informed of a "water treatment" facility looking to locate in the area, but never put two and two together until it was too late.
"Let me take Wiley Blankenship and Marshall Rogers out from under the bus that they have been run over with," Shell said. "Wiley Blankenship and Marshall Rogers are very competent industrial developers that work really hard, not only for Escambia County, but for Monroe and Conecuh counties. And what these gentlemen said is accurate."
According to Shell, the Chandlers did get in touch with Blankenship and Rogers and the duo did their jobs and showed the business owners property. He said that had he known the nature of the chemicals being used, he would have had the brothers come in and meet with the Atmore Industrial Development Board, so they could explain their operation.
Shell went on to show his disapproval of the company locating near Atmore.
"It's not a matter of are you going to have a spill, it's a matter of when you have a spill because they happen all the time," Shell said. "So I don't want to put Marshall Rogers and Wiley Blankenship under the wheels of the bus so hard that they feel ashamed to show their faces because they did their jobs like they are supposed to do. Maybe I didn't do mine in time."
Blankenship agreed with Shell and added that they attempted to locate another piece of land for the property.
"I had a deep discussion with mayor Shell and he told me that they (C&S Chemicals) were probably not going to be wanted in the area and if I could find another location," he said. "I went to them (C&S) and explained to them that the residents are going to be upset and asked if I could assist them in finding a location that is deemed industrial. They declined my offer because they felt that their current location would be the best for them."
Blankenship said the bottom line is zoning.
"If I lived in that vicinity I would have concerns about any company, not just C&S, locating near where I live because I have no protection and I have no zoning," he said. "Unfortunately in the State of Alabama, we don't have any zoning to protect our property. The facts are the facts. If you want to be protected, you need to ask for county zoning and protection."
Another issue raised was why Debbie Rowell, owner of Southern Real Estate and the broker who sold the property to C&S, sold the property to the chemical company.
"I knew nothing other than that they needed property along a railroad track and this property was available," she said Tuesday afternoon. "They did not disclose with me what their intentions were and by law I cannot ask or discriminate in selling property to anyone. As a realtor, I cannot police the use of property once it is purchased."
According to Rowell, the Fair Housing Act protects consumers against being discriminated against when dealing with realtors. The act covers all "real property," which includes houses and land."
"Debbie Rowell did absolutely nothing wrong," Blankenship said. "As a realtor she can be held liable if she asks questions. She cannot ask questions such as ethnicity or what the land will be used for. The law says she cannot do that. I don't see that anybody is at fault."
As for the concerned homeowners, they announced during Monday's meeting that they are interested in purchasing the property back from the Chandlers. They said they would pay the land purchase price and the cost of clearing off the land.

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