Judge rules Stonecrest recycling plant improperly obtained permit

Th Metro Green Recycling plant on Snapfinger Woods Drive is currently not operating due to a permitting issue Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021.  Residential properties are next to industrial operations allowing for industrial vehicles overflowing roadways, abandoned homes turning into dump sites and DeKalb County residents living beside concrete production facilities and junkyards. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
Th Metro Green Recycling plant on Snapfinger Woods Drive is currently not operating due to a permitting issue Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021. Residential properties are next to industrial operations allowing for industrial vehicles overflowing roadways, abandoned homes turning into dump sites and DeKalb County residents living beside concrete production facilities and junkyards. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Activists claim victory after years of protests and legal battles against the concrete recycling plant, which now has an uncertain future in the city

A recycling plant near residential neighborhoods was dealt a crucial blow in court this week when a judge revoked its ability to crush concrete.

DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie ruled Monday that Metro Green Recycling improperly obtained a permit from state regulators by circumventing the county and taking advantage of the city of Stonecrest, which had just been founded. The ruling stifles the business activity of the plant, leaving the future of its 50-acre operation in question.

When Barrie said the permit was invalid, neighbors who have rallied and protested against the plant were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

“After years of arguing against Metro Green, we’re relieved the DeKalb County Superior Court validates that we have a voice in whether solid waste is handled in our backyards, causing noise, air pollution, and mental distress for residents,” Renee Cail, president of Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE), said in a news release. CHASE is a citizen activist group involved in the lawsuit against Metro Green.

ExploreJudge says controversial Stonecrest recycling plant can’t crush concrete

The recycling plant, located near Snapfinger Woods Drive and Miller Road, has been the center of protests, legal battles and backdoor politics since 2018, only about a year after Stonecrest incorporated. DeKalb officials initially denied Metro Green’s project, but the company was able to get Stonecrest’s mayor — who would later resign in disgrace after being caught stealing pandemic relief funds — to improperly back the project.

The judge ripped into Metro Green for building the plant before the legal case was over, which leaves the company with a gigantic plant it might not be able to use as intended.

“I specifically said if you build, you’re building at your own risk,” Barrie said.

Barrie ended the case before it proceeded to a trial by using summary judgment, and she has yet to publish her full ruling. Matthew Benson, an attorney representing Metro Green, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution there are other aspects of the case that have yet to be decided, which could affect how his client proceed.

“I don’t want to comment until I see what the actual order says,” he said in an email. “There are certain aspects of the case which the court reserved until publication of the order.”

Going behind DeKalb’s back

Metro Green’s plans to expand into Stonecrest were immediately hit with pushback.

The company contacted the city and Jason Lary, its newly elected mayor, to pitch its construction and demolition recycling facility. The city would tell Metro Green that it didn’t have the authority to approve such a project, referring its representatives to the county. Tracy Hutchinson, the DeKalb Sanitation Division Director, rejected the company’s proposal, saying it isn’t consistent with the county’s solid waste management plan.

Metro Green didn’t give up. They went back to Lary and Stonecrest and received a different answer. In May 2018, Lary wrote a letter to the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) endorsing the project. Michael Harris, who was Stonecrest’s city manager at the time, wrote a subsequent letter to the EPD saying that Metro Green’s plans complied with the city’s zoning laws and the county’s solid waste plan.

ExploreFormer Stonecrest mayor pleads guilty to federal fraud charges

However, the city had not adopted the county’s solid waste plan and had no similar plan of its own. Barrie said most cities, including Stonecrest, are given two years to figure out how they want to handle critical infrastructure plans like solid waste, and the city was still in that growing period at the time.

“When you skip that piece, what happens is what is happening here,” Barrie said. “The people do not get an opportunity to be heard, and you have a young, baby government giving out permits and issuing things that are going to mess up the entire plan, which is the purpose of the city. It’s a brand new city. It deserved to be able to plan.”

By October 2019, the EPD issued Metro Green a solid waste handling permit, allowing it to take in unsorted construction debris for processing and recycling. Activists and residents said the activity kicks up dust and creates noise, which is unbearable for residents who live next to the plant. Since Stonecrest is more than 93% Black, activists also say the plant’s location near homes and neighborhoods is a clear example of environmental racism.

Cail previously told the AJC that Black communities “have always been dumped on with garbage. And if we don’t say something, or we don’t stand up to fight for our communities, then it goes downhill.”

ExploreIn south DeKalb, Black neighborhoods fight ‘environmental racism’

‘What the people in Stonecrest deserve’

Despite protests and a change of heart from Lary, who briefly issued a stop-work order on Metro Green’s construction, the project was already underway.

In August 2020, the Stonecrest City Council filed a temporary restraining order against Metro Green to try to stop ongoing construction. The legal action would grow into a lawsuit where Stonecrest, DeKalb County and CHASE were each suing Metro Green, the EPD and its director, Richard Dunn.

The EPD’s attorneys argued that the letter from Stonecrest endorsing the project fulfilled the state agency’s oversight requirements when it initially issued Metro Green’s permit. Barrie pushed back on that Monday.

“I think it’s kind of foolish to consider that the EPD director can turn a blind eye to a (solid waste) plan that doesn’t exist. I just don’t see how that’s possible,” she said. “... If the plan doesn’t exist, you don’t have jurisdiction and you can’t issue a permit.”

Combined ShapeCaption
This is an aerial photo of the Metro Green Recycling plant site in Stonecrest.

Credit: Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment

This is an aerial photo of the Metro Green Recycling plant site in Stonecrest.

Credit: Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment

Combined ShapeCaption
This is an aerial photo of the Metro Green Recycling plant site in Stonecrest.

Credit: Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment

Credit: Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment

Barrie went on to say that neither Stonecrest nor DeKalb could have written a letter approving the project, since Stonecrest was in its infancy. She said residents were owed public hearings about how the city should go about solid waste management and large developments like this.

“(Without a plan,) you’ll end up putting a facility next to a place where it doesn’t work in two months, when the city is formulating and working itself through,” she said. “That is what the people in Stonecrest deserve.”

Barrie’s full ruling might shed more light on the long-term future of Metro Green’s facility. While she found that the permit is invalid, it’s unclear if Metro Green could reapply for a permit with the EPD or if the facility complied with Stonecrest’s zoning code when it was built. In addition, Metro Green currently has an appeal pending after its certificate of occupancy was denied by Stonecrest officials.

Barrie also said the EPD had to answer CHASE’s requests to further look into the situation and consider revoking the permit independently of the court’s order.

“We look forward to a response from Director Richard Dunn finally answering our request that he revoke Metro Green’s permit,” Cail said.

The Metro Green Timeline

  • Nov. 8, 2016

    Residents in south DeKalb County voted to form Stonecrest. Jason Lary would soon be elected as the city’s first mayor.

  • June 17, 2018

    Metro Green Recycling contacted Tracy Hutchinson, the DeKalb Sanitation Division Director, to pitch a construction and demolition recycling facility project. She denied the request, saying it isn’t consistent with the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

  • Oct. 31, 2018

    Michael Harris, Stonecrest’s former city manager, wrote a letter to the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) that said Metro Green’s plans complied with the city’s zoning laws and county’s solid waste plan. Lary previously sent letters approving the project in May 2018.

  • Dec. 3, 2018

    The EPD received Metro Green’s application for a solid waste handling permit, which includes references to the Stonecrest letters of approval.

  • Oct. 1, 2019

    The EPD, overseen by Director Richard Dunn, issues the permit.

  • July 1, 2020

    Lary issued a stop-work order on the construction on Metro Green. However, he removed the stop-work order 13 days later, citing fears of potential legal action.

  • Aug. 6, 2020

    At the request of the City Council, Stonecrest filed a temporary restraining order lawsuit against Metro Green and DeKalb County to try to stop ongoing construction. The EPD and Dunn would be added as defendants in September.

  • Dec. 30, 2020

    The Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE), a citizen advocacy group, was added as a plaintiff.

  • Feb. 5, 2021

    CHASE files a motion for a temporary restraining order, attempting to stop current and future construction at the Metro Green site.

  • Sept. 15, 2021

    DeKalb Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie granted CHASE’s motion for a temporary restraining order, preventing Metro Green from continuing work on the site until the case concludes.

  • Dec. 8, 2021

    The Stonecrest Board of Appeals denied Metro Green's appeal for its certificate of occupancy, leading the company to file an appeal in DeKalb County Superior Court. That appeal remains pending.

  • June 27, 2022

    Barrie issued her ruling by summary judgement, which found that Metro Green improperly obtained its permit, making it invalid. Her full order was not immediately available.