After four hours of testimony and countless pages of supporting documentation, the Vienna Planning Commission felt overwhelmed. Charged at its July 26 meeting with deciding on a conditional-use permit for leaf mulching at the town-owned site at 442 Beulah Road N.E., the commissioners received conflicting information from both the Town and the Vienna residents living near the leaf mulching site.
"Our challenge now is, what is our story going to be?" said George Creed, Planning Commission chair. "How do we get these facts? How do we get them to float to the surface?"
The Planning Commission will be grappling with the question for the next several days, after it deferred making a decision until Aug. 11.
However, several commissioners said that the burden to dispel the residents' claims fell on the Town, to prove that the leaf mulching operation doesn't harmfully impact the neighborhood's quality of life. If it does, the commissioners wanted the Town to come up with suggestions to relieve those concerns.
"I think the Town needs to be more specific," said Creed, referring to procedures on the hours of operation and abatement of noise and odor problems.
"I feel that the analysis of alternatives is fundamental to our decision," said Commissioner Frederick Skaer.
THE CONTENTIOUS issue at hand is whether the Town should continue its leaf mulching operation on a site off Beulah Road. On one side are the Town of Vienna and several Vienna residents who think the site is an appropriate place for leaf mulching, because of its location and its use for the last several years as the site for leaf mulching.
On the other side is another group of Vienna residents, many of whom live in the northeast quadrant of town, who claim that the leaf mulching operation has detrimentally impacted the quality of life in their neighborhood.
Because of complaints by those citizens, the Town is undergoing the process for a conditional-use permit for the site. After the Planning Commission makes its decision, it will forward its recommendation to the Town's Board of Zoning Appeals, which will also decide on the issue. The permit will eventually reach the Vienna Town Council for a vote.
In appealing to the Planning Commission on behalf of the Town, Greg Hembree, the Town's planning and zoning director, explained that the permit application came up because the Town was asked about legal land-use opportunities in January 2004. He advocated that the Planning Commission approve the permit, on the grounds that the operation wasn't detrimental to the public and it complied with its zoning designation and the Town's comprehensive plan.
Hembree added that the property was acquired by fee and not deeded to the Town.
Dennis King, the Town's public works director, described the current leaf mulching operation, which starts as soon as the leaves are picked up in September and October.
King gave minimum operational procedures for the activity, asking that the town manager have authority to alter hours in the event that the operation falls behind due to weather conditions.
He asked for the site to be available from Oct. 1 to March 31, and that the activity occur between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays during October, November and December. Tub grinder use would be restricted to 9 a.m.-3 p.m. from November to March.
"The operational considerations are more important because there are parameters that we have no control over," said King, referring to adverse weather conditions, very cold temperatures and manpower supply.
ADDRESSING THE residents' concerns of noise and odor of the leaf mulching operation, King said he instructed the public works staff to apply lime on the mulch piles every day to squelch the smell.
"Lime is the only thing I know to stabilize the ... acid," King said.
As for noise, no formal study was conducted, as the Town sought the conditional use permit after leaf mulching was completed for the season.
Answering commissioners' questions, King replied that the workers would sometimes try to pile the leaves so that they could provide a little buffer for noise, and that staff from the state's Department of Environmental Quality had not checked on concerns about the site because there wasn't a need and the operation had finished for the season.
In regard to whether the Town has conducted a best-practices survey, King replied that the Town had done one, to some extent. The department learned that the Town of Herndon and Fairfax City collect leaves, but they don't grind or distribute them. In both areas, leaves are stored in roll-off containers until they are ready for mulching.
King stressed that the difficulty in altering the leaf mulching operation was that it could potentially cost the Town more money, with increased costs coming from manpower, vehicles and fuel. If the leaves were taken to an off-site location such as the one on West Ox Road, traffic and possible overtime could be other factors.
"All these things tie in to the overall cost of the operation," King said.
While the Town explained its position, the Vienna residents, represented by the Northeast Vienna Citizens Association (NEVCA) and the recently formed Friends of Beulah Road Park, made their case.
"This has caused a great deal of stress and anxiety," said Anthony Giovanniello, a chair of NEVCA's Beulah Road Park committee.
NEVCA president Edgar Adamson introduced his group's side by stating that the residents had been asking the Town about the operation for over a year, with no satisfactory response. They crafted a resolution last September, asking the Town to create a joint task force to consider turning the site into a park.
"The resolution was never addressed. Instead, we were labeled a group that wanted to get rid of leaf mulch," said Adamson, who added that NEVCA supports leaf collection, mulching and distribution by the town.
As NEVCA passed out binders filled with over 90 pages of research and supporting material, Sean Curtin, whose parents bought a home adjacent to the site in 1969, presented NEVCA's case and provided the Town with an alternative suggestion.
AS STATED in the presentation binder's executive summary, NEVCA is asking the Town to deny the Town's conditional-use permit for five reasons: that the use is "wholly incompatible with the surrounding neighborhoods ... incompatible with other activities permitted with a conditional use permit," and "not in accord with Section 18-209 of the Town Code," which says use must not be detrimental to public welfare. NEVCA continued to say that "there is no showing of hardship" and that "no noise study has ever been provided by the applicant."
"Yes, it does say ‘public use,’ but it's an industrial job," Curtin said of the site's zoning.
NEVCA's alternative is to allow a temporary conditional-use permit, which would expire on May 1, 2005. That would give the Town time to study the operation and explore alternatives. The proposal asks to limit hours so that operations cease after 3 p.m., and that the noise level should not exceed 55 dBA. The applicant would also comply with vibration requirements, eliminate offensive odors, not enlarge the footprint of the operation and not permit excessive storm-water runoff. If dust becomes a problem, NEVCA asked that the Town take aggressive measures for dust control.
After Curtin spoke, other NEVCA members and citizens gave presentations on other topics, with around 10 citizens providing public testimony.
Adele Freidel listed the discrepancies between the Town’s and citizens' observation and data on usage and operation, and Linda Ebersole gave a history of the eight-acre site.
Gary E. Ehrlich, a professional engineer of Wyle Laboratories, was hired by NEVCA and Friends of Beulah Road Park to give a presentation on sound levels and noise limits at the local, regional and international level.
Jim Collins, who presently lives in Herndon but grew up next to the site, provided the town with three alternatives to leaf mulching at Beulah Road, including a cost analysis on each option.
The three options were purchasing a trackless leaf loader/mulcher, buying a one-person leaf loader, or storing leaves in roll-off containers to be mulched off-site.
Collins estimated that the first two options could save the Town over $100,000, while the third option could cost the Town $44,000 more.
After hearing all the information, Creed predicted that the Planning Commission would need more time to sort out all the testimony it had received.
"Commissioners, we've been given a lot of words tonight ... I think we're going to need some more data," Creed said.
Skaer agreed. "The tremendous presentations that we've gotten from our citizens is truly remarkable," he said.
On hearing Freidel's presentation on the discrepancies between the Town’s and citizens' observations, Skaer added that the Planning Commission should focus on Freidel's testimony and ask the Town to go through the material, finding points of agreement and disagreement.
"We can't make an informed recommendation without some confidence," said Skaer, who called some of the differences "troubling."
Creed asked the Town to strengthen its case for the permit, particularly with testing. After the testimony, he asked King to come forward and give his observations on NEVCA's testimony.
King replied that his greatest concern was that changes to the current operation could mean increased costs to the Town.
"To me, it's obvious no one can comprehend what our operation is. It's very complicated, it's very unique," King said.
Taking the points one by one, King said he looked at the leaf mulching trucks outlined by Collins but thought the literature supplied by the company didn't tell the whole story, such as what happens if a soda bottle gets stuck or if the equipment can't handle deep-ditch roads.
"It's one thing to stage a demonstration like that to sell your equipment," King said, adding that the current trucks that do carry leaves are multipurpose.
Yet Creed urged King and the Town to look at solving odor, noise and dust issues, even if the search was previously fruitless in finding adequate solutions.
"I don't think we can do the same old, same old," Creed said.