CLEAR BROOK — A decision made last month by the Frederick County Board of Supervisors that derailed The Clorox Company’s plan to build a cat litter manufacturing facility in Clear Brook has some officials concerned about its impact on the county’s ability to attract new businesses.
“I do think there’s the potential ... for not only other companies looking at our area to give pause, but for our partners in Richmond to give pause as well,” board chairman Charles DeHaven Jr. said this week, referring to state economic development officials who help court businesses that are considering locating in Virginia. “It could have been a huge win-win [but] we didn’t even get to see the totality of [Clorox’s] application.”
On May 22, the supervisors voted 5-2 against a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would have made it possible for the proposed plant to be in the county’s Sewer and Water Service Area (SWSA).
DeHaven and Back Creek Supervisor Gary Lofton were the only board members who supported the amendment. In voting against it, the other supervisors echoed concerns expressed by citizens about the impact the manufacturing facility would have on the rural community’s character and its roads.
Clorox, a Fortune 500 company, sought to build a 100,000-square-foot cat litter plant on a 146-acre site at 668 Quarry Lane off Brucetown Road, creating 100 full-time jobs and generating an estimated $500,000 in annual tax revenue for the county. The company also pledged $1 million to improve Brucetown Road, which is already heavily used by Carmeuse Lime & Stone, a limestone quarry. Clorox wanted to build its plant next to the quarry because it uses limestone in its cat litter products. It planned to utilize a rail line to transport the limestone from the quarry to the cat litter plant, keeping some traffic off the roads.
If the supervisors’ decision has given state officials the impression that Frederick County is developing an anti-business climate, “Obviously, that’s a concern,” DeHaven said.
No one from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which offered economic incentives for Clorox to locate its cat litter plant in Frederick County, responded to requests for comment on this story.
Because the project never got past the first step in the approval process at the local level, Clorox never submitted a rezoning application or other plans for the site.
That doesn’t sit well with Lofton. He said Clorox’s name “never should have entered into the conversation” when the supervisors were considering the amendment request, which was submitted by Carmeuse to adjust the SWSA boundary. Part of the blame for that lies with state officials, who Lofton feels “jumped ahead” by announcing earlier this year that Clorox was eyeing Frederick County for its new cat litter manufacturing facility, before the project had been considered by county officials.
Now that a decision has been made not to amend the Comprehensive Plan, it’s unlikely that any commercial operation can locate on that land, which is zoned for rural use, Lofton said.
But the rural designation allows for the land to be cut up into five-acre plots, where a developer could build single-family homes without needing to rezone the property, Lofton said. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that each home averages 10 car trips per day coming and going, so those who opposed Clorox over traffic concerns might still get increased traffic on Brucetown Road, if the 146-acre site becomes a residential development.
Harry S. White Jr., who owns the 146-acre Clear Brook property, could not be reached for comment.
What’s worse, Lofton said, is the possibility that Clorox could locate the cat litter plant just over the state line in West Virginia and use trucks to transport limestone instead of a rail system.
“There is a strong possibility that Clorox is going to land in Berkeley County (West Virginia),” Lofton speculated, which he said would allow the company to send an “unlimited” number of trucks up and down Brucetown Road “all day long, and there’s really nothing [Frederick County] can do about it.”
And Frederick County wouldn’t be getting money from Clorox to help pay for local road improvements, he added.
Although other officials have said Clorox may be considering a location in Berkeley County, Sandy Hamilton, executive director of the Berkeley County Development Authority, said in a Monday email to The Star that her office was “not working with Clorox at this time.”
Michael Holly, a vice president for Clorox, did not respond to requests for comment.
Opponents of the cat litter plant said they didn’t want increased truck traffic along Brucetown Road, while others said they didn’t want to see the adjacent Carmeuse quarry expand. Carmeuse, a Belgian mining company, surface mines about 500 acres in Clear Brook and owns hundreds of additional acres in the surrounding area.
Some supervisors said they voted against the proposed amendment in May, in part, because it could strong-arm the county into approving rezoning for Carmeuse’s mining operations in the future.
Supervisor Judy McCann-Slaughter, who represents the Clear Brook area in the Stonewall Magisterial District, opposed amending the plan and said the land can’t be developed to the degree that some people think.
“It’s nowhere near what people have said about it turning into another Snowden Bridge,” McCann-Slaughter said this week, referring to the large residential development in nearby Stephenson.
McCann-Slaughter said her concerns about the Clorox project’s impact on the county “far outweighed” her concerns about future business prospects. She noted there are rail lines extending from Clear Brook to Berkeley County that could be used to transport limestone.
No one from the Winchester & Western Railroad, which operates rail service in that area, responded to requests for comment.
Addressing the issue of Carmeuse potentially expanding its Clear Brook mining operation, Lofton said the company would need rezoning approval only for surface mining. “If they mine underground, they don’t have to do any rezoning at all.”
All things considered, there’s a good chance Frederick County will get none of the benefits of the Clorox project but many of the costs, Lofton said.
Patrick Barker, executive director of the Frederick County Economic Development Authority, said the failure of the Clorox project to move forward doesn’t diminish his office’s goal of presenting the county as an attractive, welcoming business environment.
“The EDA’s goal moving forward is to proactively and directly approach the situation with site selectors, corporate real estate brokers and [state government],” Barker said in an email. “Remind them of our top-ranking track record, heralded commitment to business and how Frederick County is always working to minimize risks in the site selection process and enhance its pro-business climate.”
J.J. Smith, president of Valley Proteins, a rendering plant on Indian Hollow Road in Frederick County, and a member of the GO Virginia regional economic development partnership board, said he was “a bit surprised” by the county’s refusal to move forward on the Clorox project. “It makes you wonder what kind of manufacturing facility they would accept.”
He said the loss of a major business in a growing county is a worrying sign. Population growth is unlikely to stop, and the county will need businesses to help offset the cost of public services, or else raise taxes.
“Businesses don’t cost ... the way the homes do,” Smith said.
Smith said the county could be turning down the employers it’s going to need to be fiscally healthy in the future.
“Sometimes we’re too lucky,’” Smith said about the local diversified economy. “We may have the luxury of turning down things that you couldn’t turn down if you were in the coalfields.”
But he’s skeptical the Clorox decision will deter other businesses from locating in Frederick County. If a company determines the county has what it needs to be successful, it is likely to consider setting up shop here. He cited the example of Cardinal Glass Industries Inc., which didn’t build a manufacturing facility in Kernstown in 1999 because residents were worried about pollution. But that land later became the site of the HP Hood dairy plant.