It took several years for James Protor to convince his wife, Phyllis to give up their first home near Marlow Heights in Prince George's County. t
But 16 years of noise and dust from a sand and gravel mine adjoining their property finally overcame her sentimental attachment. In 1970 the retired couple purchased an $85,000 home in a new development nearby called Gordon's Corner.
"It was just terrible," said Phyllis Proctor, recalling the mine near her former home. "There was so much dust and noise . . . When the wind would blow, it would look like a dust storm. You couldn't keep your house clean for the dust, even if you kept your windows down. If you hung your clothes out, they would get gritty with dirt."
Now, like the return of a bad dream, the Proctors are faced with the prospect of having their peace and quiet shattered by a mine that would extract the county's only natural resource -- sand and gravel.
A large and politically influential Prince George's firm, Silver Hill Sand and Gravel of Marlow Heights, is seeking permission from the county to strip mine for five years 64 undeveloped acres of land bordered by the Gordon's Corner and Hidden Valley subdivisions.
And despite the opposition of its technical staff, the Prince George's County Planning Board has voted to recommend approval of the plan.
The owners of 153 homes in the neighborhood have banded together to fight the mine. Many of them say they fear the deck is stacked against them because the owners of the Silver Hill company "make their political contributions on time," said James Vance, the residents' attorney.
Officials of the Silver Hill company did not return telephone calls from a reporter seeking a response.
A planning board staff member said approval of a sand and gravel mine in the more developed parts of the county is unusual.
"I don't know of any that have been approved within the Beltway in the eight years I've been working here," said Dee Cox, who coordinated the staff report that urged denial of the zoning exception needed to mine the property.
For Stephen and Annie Whatley, the purchase of their $92,000 Gordon's Corner home was the third in a series of leapfrog moves that brought them to Prince George's from Northern Virginia in 1978. The young professional couple said they buy a house, hold it for a few years, sell it at a profit and plow their equity into a more expensive home. But as the value of their present home, now estimated at $105,000, has appreciated, so has their feeling for the neighborhood.
"I like the community. When we bought this house we were thinking one house down the road. But this is the best neighborhood I've lived in since the time I was a kid," said Stephen Whatley.
According to real estate appraiser Leroy Williams, retained as an expert witness by the homeowners, they may have to settle for the pleasure of living in the neighborhood rather on their investment if the mine is established.
"People in this [real estate] business know that it [a sand and gravel mine] is undesirable and causes an economic depression of an unknown amount," said Williams. "If this mine was permitted to operate, buying there would stop and the area would become stagnant in sales. The greatest loss would be the lack of appreciation in price compared to like housing elsewhere."
The Proctors and the Whatleys are typical of the middle-class residents of the $85,000-to-$120,000 homes that have been built in the area in the last 10 years. They were attracted by the custom work on some of the brick homes, the convenience of nearby shopping facilities and major highways, and the quiet. The residents estimate that their community is 70 percent black.
Silver Hil Sand and Gravel, founded by Sam Bevard Sr. and now run by his sons, Sam Jr., Marion and John, has been operating in the Marlow Heights area for the last 42 years. During the 1940s and 1950s, the company took the sand and gravel out of the land where much of developed Marlow Heights now stands, including Iverson Mall and Ourisman Chevrolet, before moving their mining operations to the more rural areas of southern Prince George's.
Their main processing plant is on Cremen Road, less than a mile from the proposed mining site. The plant is also close to the St. Barnabas Road headquarters of the $16-million-a-year Bevard family business.
The Bevards' application for a zoning exception says that the mining would be done by the "cut and fill" method, using heavy equipment to strip the soil from a few acres at a time, extract the gravel that lies 10 to 15 feet below the surface, replace the soil and reseed it for development at another time. The Bevards'attorney, Glenn Harrell, insisted that the company must begin mining within 25 to 30 feet of the backyard property lines of the homes along Delmar and Holly Tree roads bordering the property.
The planning board staff report concluded that this would be too close to the homes.
". . . the applicant's proposal for a 20-foot "buffer" shows a lack of sensitivity toward the adjoining single-family (homes). The (County Council) has set more stringent setback requirements for fast-food restaurants, and a sand and gravel mine is potentially more disruptive to peaceful residential living than a restaurant. . .," said the report.
After the staff report was issued, the Bevards asked for a hearing before the planning board and community residents, led by Williams Hutte, a retired Air Force officer who is a financial analyst for the Department of Energy, hired lawyer James Vance.
Both sides presented their cases at a hearing on Oct. 16, but Harrell, the Silver Hill lawyer, had to leave the hearing early. Although it was announced at the hearing that the session would be continued Oct. 30, none of the parties received notification by mail, heightening residents' suspicions.
At the Oct. 30 hearing, with only Harrell, Marion Bevard, an owner of the company, and the planning board and its staff present, the board voted 3-to-1 to draw up a resolution of approval for the mine, in effect overruling its technical staff's recommendation.
The case also is being heard by a county zoning hearing examiner. His findings, the planning board's decision and the original staff report will go to the County Council, the final authority on contested zoning exceptions.
In 1978, the Bevards sought a zoning expecption to build a sand and gravel processing plant near the headwaters of the Zekiah Swamp near Cedarville. The planning board staff also urged denial in that case, but the planning board recommended approval.
When the matter reached the Council last year, the zoning exception was unanimously denied, according to Vance, who represented area residents and environmentalists opposed to the plant. That case has been appealed to the Superior Court of Prince George's County and will be heard in January.
The Bevards argued, according to the transcript of the Oct. 30 hearing, that two county master plans adopted in 1973 and 1974 for outlying areas of the county stressed that sand and gravel was an important resource that should be removed from an area before development takes place. Two of the commissioners said they also were convinced that the equipment proposed for the mining operation does not differ substantially from the kind used in homebuilding, for which the property is zoned.
Spokesman Hutte and lawyer Vance disagree on both points.
"Everyone says that sand and gravel is an economic asset," Hutte said at a later planning board hearing. "Well, what am I as a taxpayer? What am I as a voter?"
"When you excavate and grade for building a house or a subdivision street, it amounts to a day and a half or two days per house. This is proposed to go on for five years," said Vance. "The rather obvious difference is the time involved. It is just incredible that somebody could say that it is the same as a subdivision development."
The reason I supported it," said planning board member Ann Shoch, "was because the way (John) Churchill (one of the three planning board members who voted to recommend approval) broached it to us; gravel is a valuable resource that should be taken out before development takes place," she said.
"I'd be mad as hell if it were in my neighborhood," said Churchill. "but on the other hand, I know that sand and gravel is very important in this county. I'm not absolutely sure if I really did the right thing."
The planning board will vote on the resolution for approval next Thursday. The hearing examiner's ruling is not expected before early January, meaning that the County Council will not get the case until February.