Facts have muddled the case of the Town of Vienna's mulching operation on Beulah Road. Both sides have presented the Board of Zoning Appeals with inches-thick documentation supporting their arguments, but basic facts are still in dispute. "There really wasn't anything in here that tells me what's so," said Gregory Haight, a member of the board.
The board, after hearing 4 1/2 hours of testimony about the mulching operation, decided to put off its decision until its next meeting on Sept. 15, in order to give the members time to sort out the specifics.
The Town of Vienna stores leaves on a property (neighbors refer to it as a park, and Town officials say it is not a park but public use land) on Beulah Road Northeast. The Town also uses a piece of machinery called a tub grinder to grind the leaves into mulch, which is then distributed free to Town residents.
The machine operates from October to March and usually runs for 130 hours over that period of time, said John Schoeberlein, Town manager. Last year, it was operated for 96 hours, but the Town was using a new, larger grinder.
Residents say that this grinder causes noise and vibrations, and the leaf piles cause odors that are at least annoying and, at worst, a health hazard. "The mulching operation at this location is not only wrong, it is illegal," said Edgar Adamson, president of the North East Vienna Citizens Association.
Schoeberlein said that the property is suitable for the operation and that were the Town to stop using the site, it would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to truck the leaves to the Fairfax County transfer station on West Ox Road. "Our proposal is a reasonable use for the property," Schoeberlein said.
The Vienna Planning Commission in a 5-3 vote had essentially sided with the residents, saying the Town could store leaves on the property but could not go ahead with its grinding operations. That ruling was appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
THE BOARD'S DECISION is complicated by a lack of verifiable facts. According to generally accepted federal guidelines, 50-55 decibels is considered the maximum acceptable level for noise in a residential area, said Gary Ehrlich, an acoustical engineer working for the residents. "It's a matter of how loud is too loud," Ehrlich said.
The standard was not generally in dispute, but the decibel level was. No full scientific measure has been done of the decibel level generated by the machine while it is operating, so accounts differ on how loud it is.
Also at issue is where the level should be measured. Residents favored measuring the decibel level at the abutting neighbors' property line, while the Town was measuring the level at the houses.
Since sound diminishes with distance, and the houses are farther from the mulcher than the property line, the levels are generally lower at the houses.
The town also suggested building noise barriers (see sidebar), but whether the barriers would lower the total sound level to an acceptable level is not clear.
At least one member of the board, Haight, said that the final decision should really be made by the Town Council. The ultimate resolution involves balancing the interests of Town residents who would be denied the service of getting free mulch, against the interests of the residents who must deal with the consequences of performing the mulching operation on Beulah Road.
"It is a decision that needs to be made politically," Haight said.