Loudoun County residents have objected to a proposal before the county Board of Supervisors that citizens say will allow quarries to be noisier than even quarry owners want them to be.
After 18 months of debate, the county Planning Commission recently recommended that the county allow more lenient performance standards for quarries and similar industries. Those proposed standards are now before the Board of Supervisors, which held a public hearing on the changes last week.
The recommendations would allow decibel levels for steady noise to be 15 points higher than was recommended by the county planning staff, whose recommendations were less permissive than that of the commission.
Vibration standards and blasting noise levels are also higher in the Planning Commission proposal, and quarry operators would be allowed to average them over a year-long period rather than abide by the standards on a daily basis.
Many speakers said what they found most disturbing about the recommendations is that the proposed standards would allow all noise and blasting levels to be measured for compliance at the nearest residence rather than at a quarry's boundaries, effectively allowing quarry operators to use residents' yards as a buffer zone.
"If you raise the noise level standards for the quarry industry it could be a step to raising the noise standards for every other industry in the county," said Benjamin Hicks, a resident from the Broad Run area.
"I would ask you to be very conservative, be concerned about conflict of interest, look to see who stands to gain and who stands to lose before you make a decision," Hicks told the supervisors.
Many of the citizens who voiced objections to the proposals were from the Bull Run community. Homeowners there have spent four years fighting the proposed expansion of the Bull Run Quarry near the Manassas National Battlefield Park and have complained that vibrations from the quarry have caused walls to crack and mirrors to fall in their homes.
Industry representatives at the hearing said they were not pleased with the recommendations either. They said the standards would not allow operators enough latitude to work.
"The recommendations would cause a significant problem for the industry, if adopted as proposed," said Thomas Nalls, a Leesburg attorney who represented Loudoun's five quarry operators at the hearing.
Nalls said the recommendations would allow more noise than the industry proposed when it testified before the Planning Commission, but that quarry operators did not like the recommendations because they claim they need a range of decibels to accommodate variables they can't control, such as rock density, weather, wind, and the force with which a charge explodes.
While board members would not say they specifically believed the quarry industry should be given more permissive standards, Nalls said that quarry operators believe the county has the most to gain by raising the standards. Operators say Loudoun has good natural stone, and that with workable standards the county could possibly attract new quarry operators.
According to industry figures, quarries in Loudoun employ nearly 200 people, pay roughly $5 million a year in wages and pay the county upwards of half a million in taxes annually. "You've got a tremendous asset in this industry, it's a net winner to the county," said Nalls.
That view is echoed in the county's detailed Resource Management Plan, a blueprint for county planning adopted in the late 1970s and the county's leading policy document. The plan singles out rock quarrying as one of the county's few natural resource industries and an industry that the county should encourage.
Loudoun County Supervisor Frank Raflo (D-Leesburg), chairman of the committee that will look into the performance standards, said he was a bit confused by the testimony at the hearing and that he would try to get the standards written in words "plain people can understand" before holding another public hearing on the issue. Raflo said the board may have a new proposal in place within two months.
After the hearing, residents of the Bull Run area said they were concerned about a recent decision by the Loudoun County Board of Zoning Appeals. They cite it as evidence of what they contend shows a tendency among county leaders to support the interests of the quarry industry over those of local citizens.
The Board of Zoning Appeals decided last January to grant a special exception to the Bull Run Quarry, allowing the quarry to expand operations into a 66-acre area near the Bull Run neighborhood.
Residents there say this expansion, as yet only on the drawing boards, will bring quarry operations within 400 feet of some homes. The Bull Run Civic Association and seven individual homeowners have filed suits against the county asking that the zoning decision be reversed. The suits are pending in Circuit Court.