Training site gets tentative city approval

Mary Katherine Murphy Staff Writer

October 22, 2013

LAURINBURG — Following a 90-minute public hearing on Tuesday night, Laurinburg Mayor Tommy Parker broke a tie between city council members to provisionally pass an amendment to the city’s unified development ordinance to allow for military training facilities on industrially zoned property.

Approval of the amendment, which will allow individual companies to apply for a conditional use permit to use land for the purpose of military training, will be determined by a second vote at the council’s November meeting, which will take place at after the elections.

With the addition of a council member to fill the current vacancy, a tie vote will not be possible at next month’s meeting.

Parker’s vote in favor broke the second tie of the evening, following councilman J.D. Willis’ failed motion to deny the amendment request. Councilman Curtis Leak seconded that motion, but council members Drew Williamson and Mary Jo Adams voted against, as did Parker.

More than 50 people attended the hearing.

Though the ordinance request opens the door for any potential military training site, it was precipitated by Gryphon Group Security Solutions’ interest in the former QualPak building on U.S. 501.

“If we amend this ordinance, and this ordinance was put in place for a reason, if we amend this ordinance, then it’s going to have an effect on possibly 142 parcels,” Willis said. “Not only will we be able to allow the Gryphon Group, but there will be other groups that can come within the city limits, and it’s not only on District 1, it’s District 2 as well.”

Several inhabitants of the residential area near the QualPak building spoke against the amendment, with concerns ranging from weapon safety and noise to security. Sallye McLaurin said she was worried that chemicals used in ammunition could react with residual chemicals used at the facility in the past.

Terence Williams, president of the Scotland County NAACP, said he was concerned about weapons falling into the wrong hands.

“I haven’t heard anybody talk about the security, and with the amount of guns that we already have penetrating our community and certainly it’s not a matter of if somebody’s going to break in to this facility, but when,” he said.

Gryphon Group’s initial request provided for a live firing range outside of the building, but that portion of the request was withdrawn after concerns voiced by Leak and city planning board member Charles Parker.

Michael Vaden, Gryphon Group founder and CEO, said the company operated firing ranges in Brevard County, Florida, for 12 years, “within 75 feet of a major highway in the country with nothing but air between us and I-95” and had no safety issues.

“I know we could do a regular live-fire range safely right outside of that building, but because of the perception that it’s unsafe… . I just immediately said that I’ve got to write a letter to the council and say I don’t want to do it,” he said.

According to planning director Brandi Deese, the amendment requires the use of non-lethal, lead free, non-toxic frangible ammunition. Vaden said that such ammunition makes far less noise than a gunpowder weapon.

“There’s a small charge that would sound more like a starter pistol at a track meet,” he said.

Gryphon Group currently operates a facility at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airbase, and the Laurinburg facility would be an expansion of the company’s services to military members and private security personnel. Vaden added that the Laurinburg facility would serve as a site for occasional nighttime rooftop helicopter landings.

“We only do survivability training; we’re really interested in helping them come home to their families and survive some of these ambushes and IED attacks and all the things that happen to these folks who are out there defending us,” Vaden said.

The QualPak building, which has been vacant since 2011, is also the former home of Abbott Laboratories, whose prior use of the facility has rendered it a brownfield area — so named because of low levels of soil contamination. Scotland County Economic Development Director Greg Icard said that other options for the building are few.

“The compartmentalization of the building, low ceiling heights, and its prior use greatly restrict potential use in the future,” said Icard. “We’ve had multiple companies look at it and most would not be able to utilize it because of the small room sizes.”

If Gryphon Group does not make use of the building, Icard said that it will likely be demolished.

Following the failed vote to deny the amendment, Williamson proposed the motion to approve, inviting those against the facility to return when Gryphon Group files a conditional use permit for the QualPak facility.

“This was designed as simply an amendment to the ordinance as Mrs. Deese said, but we all knew the source of the request and so we really had basically a forecast of what’s going to happen if the amendment is granted and if Gryphon Group files a conditional use permit,” he said.

“I suspect, if in fact a Conditional Use Permit is filed, you all will return, as you should, if you remain interested, and I would just encourage Mr. Vaden as he drafts his proposal that he consider the concerns of the citizens in doing so.”

Though final approval of the amendment will require a second vote, local residents were dissatisfied with the outcome.

“There were questions that were not answered,” McLaurin said.