After three and a half hours of public testimony, questions and debate following an additional hour and a half work session it all came down to one simple point, “The people who bought homes in Cameron Station and Summer’s Grove were well on notice the plant was there.”
That statement, made by Alexandria Planning Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr., just moments before the final vote by the Commission at Tuesday night’s meeting compressed all the previous verbiage into one simplistic reality in the escalating confrontation of long existing industrial land uses being crowded by encroaching residential expansion. It is not a problem limited to Alexandria.
The plant referred to by Dunn is that of Virginia Paving Company located at 5601 Courtney Avenue. The nature of their application before the Commission was to amend the asphalt plant’s 1960 Special Use Permit (SUP) which now prohibits night truck traffic, thereby eliminating night road paving.
The amended SUP would permit the plant to operate at night from April 1 to Nov. 1, only for state and local government contracts that require night work. It will not operate at night during the winter months. The amendment would also permit the company to increase smoke stacks at the plant to 20 meters “to improve air quality.”
As stated categorically by Attorney Mary Katherine Gibbs, representing Virginia Paving at the public hearing, “We will make this plant better if this SUP is approved. But, either way, the plant is not going away.”
The staff report explained, “The plant will remain in operation at its existing location, although without nighttime vehicular traffic, if the amendment is denied. However, none of the proposed environmental controls would necessarily be implemented” following a denial. Such denial would remove the incentive for the company to make the necessary investment, according to statements made during previous public meetings with residents and City staff.
Attached to the approval of the updated SUP was a list of 74 conditions that will be monitored by Planning & Zoning as well as Transportation & Environmental Services departmental staffs. These conditions are designed to endure the plant will operate with “new, extensive modern, environmental controls” in place, according to the staff analysis.
HOWEVER, both the staff report and staff presentation Tuesday night drew the ire of Dunn. Following praise from other Commissioners, he stated, “I don’t share the enthusiasm of my colleagues concerning the staff report. It is very one sided. Staff found no negatives in this request. I have never seen that before since I’ve been on this Commission.”
Dunn also commended the more than 20 speakers, for their organization and dedication, who urged the Commission to reject Virginia Paving’s application. But, he pointed out, “This Planning Commission was not supportive of bringing residential into this area with the development of Cameron Station. But, we were overridden by City Council at that time.”
The other public body that came in for criticism from the Commission was Alexandria’s school board which has remained mute during the entire controversy stretching the last two years. One of the arguments raised by residents of both Cameron Station and Summer’s Grove is the health effects the plant could be having on children at Tucker Elementary School, 435 Ferdinand Day Drive.
“No one from the school system has raised any concerns about Tucker. They have not participated in any of the meetings and no one is here tonight from the schools. I find that very disappointing,” said Commissioner Jesse Jennings.
“When Virginia Paving came to Alexandria this was an industrial city. They located where they did because it was far from residences and any tourist attractions. Our city needs industrial sites. It cannot exist on wealthy residential areas alone. It is important that residents and industry get along,” Jennings said prior to making the motion to approve the application which was seconded by Vice Chairman John Komoroske.
Prior to the vote Commissioner Donna Fossum attempted to have the matter deferred for further input and study. “We haven’t had a neutral opinion expressed here tonight. That’s what concerns me. I’m not ready to approve or deny this request. The paving season is almost over. I move we defer this,” she said. It died for lack of a second.
Throughout the marathon hearing, Fossum, a resident of the West End, pressed staff and Dr.Laura Green, an environmental health scientist advising the city on the Virginia Paving application, concerning the validity of their analysis. “Do we have a special obligation in that a grade school is nearby?” she inquired.
“We have found that the levels of harmful products in the air are very small in the area. If we are concerned about air quality all paving should be done at night. Everything should be done at night if air quality is the primary concern. That’s the best time when the air is least oppressive,” said Green.
BEGINNING with one of the first public meetings on the plant’s SUP amendment, two of the primary concerns expressed by nearby residents were objectional odors emanating from the plant’s operation and noise generated by truck traffic to and from the site. Both come under the category of nuisance in a legal sense.
Speakers objecting to the application pressed these two points many times not only Tuesday night but at prior public meetings. “This is not just about night paving. There are many other issues,” said Mindy Lyle, president, Cameron Station Civic Association, as she recapped the myriad concerns of nearby residents stated and restated at various public sessions.
She was supported by an array of Cameron Station residents and other citizens who cited not only noise and odor but also questions about health and safety. As for the nuisance issue, City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa stated, “This is not a nuisance issue comparable to Mirant. It would be a very difficult case to pursue in court. Judges and juries like facts not computer models.”
Speaking for the Summer’s Grove Civic Association, John Pecic stated his group supported the application. that was buttressed by another resident who emphasized, “Virginia Paving is exactly the kind of company we want in Alexandria.”
A representative of the Eisenhower Partnership presented a letter to the Commission noting their concurrence with the staff recommendation to approve the amended SUP.
“Evidence shows that health concerns are unfounded. This process has gone on way too long,” it stated.
The large contingent of those in opposition arrived with signs urging no Virginia Paving. And, as if already bypassing the Commission’s decision before it was rendered, their placards urged residents to call City Council with that body’s City Hall phone number.
In juxtaposition was an equally large contingent of Virginia Paving supporters in yellow T-shirts.
There primary input was summed up by a speaker who asked “What about us? What about our families? If we don’t work at night the business is 50 percent down.”
As pointed out by another employee, “I’m one step away from welfare because I can’t get enough work. It’s the hourly employees that will be hurt if this is denied. Management is on salary. They are not impacted.”
Immediately prior to the vote, Chairman Eric Wagner stated, “We have had not concrete evidence before us to substantiate health problems. We’ve had three separate groups of scientists working on this and not one has testified against Virginia Paving tonight. Two have testified in favor.” The final vote was six to one in favor of granting the newly amended SUP with only Fossum voting no.
Following the vote, Denny Luzier, assistant district manager, Virginia Paving Company, issued the following statement: “We worked 23 months with the residents on the West End and the City to develop the 74 conditions in this amendment to the existing SUP. We are pleased that the Planning Commission looked at the importance of this facility for the greater good — local, state and federal roadway projects.”
IN OTHER ACTIONS the commission unanimously approved:
v A request for an SUP to continue the operation of a nonconforming convenience store known as “24 Express” located at 4007 Mount Vernon Avenue. As stated in the staff report, “The store is compatible with the mix of uses already in the area and provides a valuable convenience retail service to the community.”
v A proposal by the City to purchase of a 6,223 square foot parcel at 4630 Raleigh Avenue to expand Holmes Run Park as part of the Open Space Master Plan.
v An SUP to operate a restaurant at 923 King St. The site is a three story building previously occupied by Conklyn’s Florist. The application by Allen E. Rumazon was for the operation of a “1950’s era soda fountain style restaurant.” It will serve a variety of sandwiches, hamburgers, beverages and deserts, according to Rumazon.
v Two child home day care centers. One is located at 1026 N. Chambliss St. and the other at 216 East Bellefonte Avenue. Staff recommended approval of both applications.