To Mulch or Not to Mulch?

To Mulch or Not to Mulch?

Planning Commission votes to discontinue leaf mulching while continuing annual fall leaf collection.

Going beyond a recommendation by the Northeast Vienna Citizens' Association (NEVCA), the Town Planning Commission decided in a split vote on Wednesday, Aug. 11, to discontinue the grinding of leaves during the Town's annual leaf collection, mulching and distribution operation. By approving the vote, the town still intends to collect leaves in the fall, but it would cease grinding operations at 442 Beulah Road, N.E., due to citizens' concerns about the noise, smell and dust arising from the operation.

Instead of approving the town's application to grant a conditional-use permit to allow leaf grinding at the Beulah Road site, the Planning Commission decided to make a recommendation approving the storage of leaves at a well-house at 442 Beulah Road, granting a time period to perform noise tests on the tub grinder, constructing a berm for stormwater runoff and ensuring the healthiness of existing trees on the site.

The commission's recommendation will go before the Town of Vienna's Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 8 p.m., at Vienna Town Hall. After the BZA makes its recommendation, the issue will go before the Vienna Town Council for a final discussion and approval.

Planning commissioners Frederick Skaer, David W. Miller, Emil Attanasi, Edward H. Chase and Tajendra Singh voted to discontinue the leaf grinding, while commissioners Edward R. Umbrell, Melvin McCoy and Planning Commission chairman George Creed voted in favor of temporarily continuing the leaf grinding operation, but under stricter conditions. Commissioner John M. Scheib was absent.

ALTHOUGH THE decision marked a more drastic step toward addressing citizens' concerns, the overall discussion reflected a desire to determine how the leaf mulching operation impacts the surrounding northeast neighborhood. While differences exist on how the town should address the leaf mulching operation, all agreed that something needed to be done beyond the status quo. The three commissioners who had voted against the motion to suspend the leaf grinding had favored a temporary conditional-use permit which would've further restricted the hours of the leaf grinding operation.

That recommendation for a temporary conditional-use permit had been suggested by NEVCA and Friends of Beulah Road Park at the July 28 meeting.

In making their decision, the commissioners focused on the concerns about noise emanating from the leaf mulching operation, since measurements testing noise levels would be the most quantifiable. While loud noise was one issue of neighboring residents, another was whether low frequencies of the mulching operation were creating vibration problems for nearby properties.

Other concerns about the leaf mulching operation were stormwater runoff, smell and dust.

"I'd like some way to do the [noise] study, sometime in the fall," said Creed. "So much of it on all sides appears to be hearsay."

Some commissioners remained concerned that continuing the leaf mulching operation, even for one year, would be in violation of the zoning for the town-owned property. They had thought that the mulching operation would've failed the three tests for its governmental-use zoning, which were that activities do not adversely affect the property and the surrounding area, that activities aren't detrimental to the site and that any activity is in accordance with like activities for that zoning.

"In my opinion, the number one issue is the noise and vibrations from the tub grinder," said Skaer. "Unless we can deal with that in an effective way, ... it's a non-starter."

Miller agreed. "What troubles me are the conditions we set forth [for the temporary conditional-use permit], do they rise to the tests set forth in the [town] code?" he said.

In discussing the issue, the commissioners acknowledged the potential for increased costs to the town if it discontinues on-site leaf mulching and instead takes leaves to other sites for grinding. According to calculations in a memo made by town public works director Dennis King, the estimated cost increase could be an average of $165,000 a year.

But after hearing testimony from NEVCA and Vienna residents, some of which included the possibility of selling the tub grinder to offset costs for off-site leaf grinding or for the purchase of a leaf collection and grinding vehicle, the commissioners decided that the concerns merited the costs.

"What's it going to cost the town in terms of manpower, equipment and dollars," said Creed, concerned about discontinuing the leaf mulching operation.

Later, Miller said: "I'm resigned to the fact that whatever results will be a higher cost to the town...[but] any conditions that we allow, that involves grinding, doesn't pass the test."