After long months of debate and hopeful prayer, thousands of Catholics received bitter news as Gwinnett County, Georgia commissioners voted early this month to rezone land to allow a solid waste transfer station to be built in the city of Norcross, adjacent to Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church.
The rezoning and special use permits were passed by a 3-2 vote.
Both the Gwinnett County Planning Department and Planning Commission had recommended that the requests be denied.
As newly elected District 1 Commissioner Shirley Lasseter made a motion for approval, and while she read aloud 34 conditions that would be placed on the development, nearly the entire auditorium was filled with church members and supporters holding large orange signs that said "NO."
Lasseter paused and addressed the crowd, asserting that the conditions were added to help the community adjacent to the site. They include an 81-truck maximum per day, no deliveries to the waste transfer station on Sundays, and all transfer and sorting activity to be completed indoors.
Other commissioners voting in favor were Charles Bannister, chairman, and Kevin Kenerly, District 4. Bert Nasuti, District 2, and Mike Beaudreau, District 3, voted against the proposal.
After the vote, several members of the Vietnamese community stormed out of the auditorium, some shouting comments as they left. Outside in the hall, the crowd was audibly upset as they discussed their disappointment. Many began chanting, "No trash, no trash."
Dennis Kelly, project manager for Catholic Construction Services, Inc., called the decision "disappointing," especially since the first meeting in November ended with the recommendation by county planners to deny the requests for rezoning and a special use permit.
"They ignored their own employees and appointees and made their own decision," Kelly said of the commissioners.
Father Francis Tuan Tran, administrator of the Norcross mission church, which ministers to nearly 900 families, addressed the press after the vote and echoed the frustration that many expressed.
"I am very, very disappointed," he said, but he added that this is not the end of their fight.
Father Tran said the community would use all of the resources at their disposal to continue their "difficult" fight against the project. He said legal action was one of the options being considered.
He also thanked nearby business owners, the media and members of surrounding communities that supported the church throughout this ordeal, as well as the office of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Parishioners who attended the meeting were very vocal in their distaste for the vote.
"I think it is shameful," said a flustered Q.T. Nguyen, a member of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church since it began in 2003. "If the station was next to Mr. Bannister’s house, he would think differently."
"How can we have a waste station right next to the house of God?" he asked aloud.
Chi Nguyen, a parishioner for four years, expressed her concern about the health of the children at the church.
"We believe in the child’s future," she said.
Surrounding business owners were also present and equally distraught.
Blake Dexter, who owns nearly 1.2 million square feet of office and industrial space near the proposed waste transfer station, underlined that the decision went against the recommendations of county planning professionals.
He fears that the Fortune 100 and international companies who currently occupy the space will consider leaving the property if a waste transfer station is built next door.
Dexter also said that he was concerned that the proposition was motioned for approval by the District 1 commissioner because he felt she did not have time to review the issue.
Lasseter just joined the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners in January.
The public debate began last November when Father Tran brought more than 600 people with him to a planning hearing to voice their opposition to the proposition. The meeting ended with a recommendation by county planners to deny the requests for rezoning and a special use permit.
The developer, Lancaster Enterprises, represented by the Mahaffey, Pickens, Tucker law firm, plans to construct two buildings on the nine-acre property. The company claims the buildings will look like office buildings and that all operations will be conducted inside.
However, Holy Vietnamese Martyrs parishioners, as well as surrounding business owners, expressed their concern about air pollution, dangerous truck traffic and increased noise levels that are sure to accompany a solid waste transfer station.
A public hearing on the proposition to rezone the land was held in December before county commissioners. More than 1,000 protestors showed up, filling the auditorium and the halls outside only to learn that the decision would be tabled until Feb. 3.
Father Tran and the church community knew there had to be some action taken, so he and several parishioners reached out to the surrounding Catholic community in other Gwinnett County parishes.
The mission formed 10 groups to visit neighboring Gwinnett County churches to share information.
"This idea actually originated from a comment I overheard that there are approximately 24,000 Catholic families who live in Gwinnett County," said C. C. Nguyen, a parish leader who arranged the visitations.
"How can we ask all of our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us with our fight in protecting our church and our archdiocese’s property from the proposed solid waste transfer station," he asked.
The groups spoke at Masses and also handed out flyers with information on how others could help, including an online petition.
Nearly 10,000 Catholics signed or verbally agreed to join in a petition supporting the stance of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, while others directly called or e-mailed the commissioners.
The Vietnamese church community also held a prayer vigil on Saturday, Jan. 31, from noon until midnight. Catholics from surrounding parishes, including St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, and St. Patrick Church, Norcross, attended the vigil to pray for the community and a good outcome.
However, despite the obvious opposition voiced over and over by thousands of Gwinnett residents, Catholic and otherwise, the proposal was passed.
According to Father Tran, the story does not end here. He said they will use "every available resource" to fight the approval, adding that there is current discussion about bringing legal action against Gwinnett County.
Pat Chivers, communications director for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said the Environmental Protection Agency would also be contacted, since that federal agency has to approve construction of this type of facility.
Printed with permission from the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.