Suburbanization hasn't completely taken hold of Stafford County, and many stretches of uninterrupted pasture remain, dotted with decaying barns and weeping willows. Sometimes they are also marked by the sound of machine-gun fire.
In parts of Stafford -- as in parts of Prince William County -- it is routine to hear live-ammunition training from Quantico's Marine Corps base. Residents seem to accept it as part of living near a large military installation. But now a private safety training facility has many of them saying, "Enough."
The Crucible, a prominent safety training facility for people headed to such places as Iraq, plans to move from its 88-acre site in Stafford to a 200-acre site nearby, and the proposal has caused a small revolt in the rural Hartwood district.
Neighbors of the new site have the usual concerns about the noise and traffic that could be generated by a facility with four firing ranges, a 11/4-mile "defensive driving" track and 35 to 50 students every day. But what really upsets them is the unusual way zoning department approval was secured: The Crucible declared itself a school. Even in the agricultural zone where it was situated, that meant a free pass out of board votes and public hearings.
Zoning administrator Dan Schardein and other county officials agreed 18 months ago that the training facility fit the code's one-sentence definition of a school: "Any building or part thereof which is designed, constructed or used for instruction in any branch of knowledge, excluding vocational schools."
Since then, the Crucible has spent more than $1 million for such things as environmental site assessment and soil testing, said Clark Leming, a Stafford land-use lawyer who is representing the firm.
But no one told county supervisors or the site's neighbors about the project. And now a county that has wagered its economic future on attracting government contractors well south of the Capital Beltway is in the awkward position of fighting just the sort of industry it typically courts.
The next step isn't clear. Supervisors and neighbors are trying to determine whether they have any authority to challenge Schardein's decision. To avoid having the county attorney representing both sides in the conflict, supervisors voted unanimously last week to hire an outside lawyer for advice.
"I think there is a need for this type of business, but not here. This isn't the desert -- it's a residential area," said Gary F. Snellings (R-Hartwood).
Snellings said he doesn't think the Crucible was what supervisors had in mind when they allowed "schools" to be a by-right use in any district. But Leming said officials have no choice but to look at the exact wording of the code. "This may not be what you think of as a school, or what I think of as a school, but that's not the point."
Leming and Crucible managing director Jack Stradley concede that they wanted school status because they thought the county probably wouldn't have agreed to rezone the site, in a heavily wooded area of farms, tidy trailer homes and signs for soon-to-be-built $600,000 houses. Stafford's land-use plan calls for the area to be "a rural part of the county, not commercial," Leming said Thursday at the Crucible, as the constant sound of shooting pumped away in the background.
Although the Crucible, part of the international consulting company Kroll Inc., has rented its current site since 1999 and been in the national media multiple times for its work, neighbors didn't seem to know what it was. Several said they had never heard of it and weren't bothered by the noise, while others said they tolerated it because they assumed it was affiliated with the military.
Tajshe Greene, 29, who lives next door, said that at first her 5-year-old son thought "it was cool" to hear the machine-gun fire and see what she thought were "military men" jogging down the road. But now, she said, "it's scary."
"My son rides an ATV, and he gets scared back in the woods when he hears them shooting. I'm tired of him going out there playing and coming inside because he doesn't know which way the bullets are going," Greene said. "I'm sure they are following the rules, but it is so loud."
Greene said she hears the shooting every day, sometimes in the middle of the night and when she lets her dog out at sunrise. Stradley, however, said the Crucible stops by 10 p.m. and doesn't start until 8 a.m.
Snellings said he has received noise complaints at the current site -- which is also in his district. So has the sheriff's department, which is allowed to use the firing ranges for free, as are the state police.
Beulah Gracik, 65, who lives about a half-mile from the site, said she has never complained about the shooting. "We've heard so much of it, we don't pay attention to it anymore." What does bother her are the large coach buses that rumble along the narrow country road ferrying clients.
The Crucible has grown significantly since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which is why it wants to buy a larger site. Stradley said it would be quieter and give the firm more flexibility if it had enclosed firing ranges.
Stradley said it was only a two-person operation making $200,000 a year a few years ago. After the terrorist attacks, Kroll agreed to pay $2 million in 2002 for the Crucible, which today has a full-time staff of 40 and as many as 1,000 clients a year. In paperwork submitted to the county last year, the Crucible described itself as a "small veteran-owned business."
The conflict puts some officials in a bind, said Tim Baroody, director of economic development and legislative affairs. "They have been a good corporate citizen for a decade," he said, "and I'd like them to find a long-term home in Stafford."
Mike Carlone, whose stately home sits closest to the proposed site, said he "can see where this business is necessary. It just does not belong in an agricultural area." The only sound that day in his yard was his rooster's crowing.