Deadline passes: Cismont junkyard foes dump on county
What tells Snookie Wawner that his embattled neighbors missed Albemarle County's December 30 deadline for cleaning up the illegal dump they've run for more than 30 years?
"I'm looking at a pile of junk right now," he reports from his Campbell Road residence in Keswick, next door to Cecil and Doris Gardner's 16-acre property.
Before Christmas, nearby residents had been fearful the deadline would be missed, but county officials urged calm and said there was nothing they could do until the deadline actually passed.
Well, the deadline has come and gone, and an inspection promised for the first week in January has not happened because the Gardners have been out of town, according to emails sent to Albemarle building and zoning services manager Amelia McCulley.
Residents who have been complaining about the dump since 1976 are now accusing the county of "coddling" the Gardners.
"We feel trying to do an inspection when the legal property owners are not present is not the best way to proceed," says county spokeswoman Lee Catlin. "We certainly have not done anything we would consider coddling."
Wawner is not convinced. He's lived there 29 years and says that so far, the dump owners have been able to "slide." The perception, he says, is the county is "dragging their feet" in scheduling the inspection.
Former neighbor Pat Napoleon wonders if it was an emergency that took the Gardners out of town, considering that the Board of Supervisors said in June it would not extend clean-up deadlines beyond December 30.
"The county may as well write in the policy manual for enforcement of dumps, 'Don't worry, we'll let you take all the time you want,'" she fumes. "'We won't fine you or prosecute you, and we'll set meaningless deadlines. We'll use taxpayer money to provide staff, resources, and supervision– and we'll schedule meeting times at your convenience!'"
"We know the neighbors are very sensitive to this and anxious to getting it resolved," says Catlin. "We are, too."
The county has bungled enforcement on the dump over the years, starting by erroneously concluding the junkyard operation had been grandfathered in. In 1984, one day after the county advised the Gardners that a gigantic pile of tires was a fire code violation, the pile mysteriously caught fire and burned for two weeks.
It wasn't until after a massive January 4, 2005, fire that zoning officials looked at aerial photos taken soon after Albemarle's 1969 zoning regulations went into effect and discovered the junkyard didn't exist then.
"We want the county to do its job," steams neighbor Bonnie Stevens. "We are not pleased. I find their failure to act criminal."
Catlin defends the county's handling of the cleanup. "We encourage volunteer cleanup. In the long term, when you don't take people to court, time and money go to the cleanup. The neighborhood is not well served if you take someone to court, and months and years go by with no cleanup," she says.
According to Catlin, 90 to 95 percent of the 16 acres had been cleaned as of June.
"Baloney," Stevens fires back.
From his next-door perspective, Wawner estimates the cleanup at 75 percent.
Neighbors are worried about environmental hazards oozing into the soil and water from items in the junkyard. The Department of Environmental Quality reported arsenic and benzene in the soil at the site of the tire conflagration, but said the levels found were not a concern. Stevens, Napoleon, and Wawner contend further soil testing should be done. The DEQ also tested neighboring wells but found no evidence of contamination.
A site inspection is scheduled for January 10. "If the property is not in compliance," Catlin promises, "we will have an action plan for enforcement."
Doris Gardner declines comment about the cleanup and her neighbors' concerns. "Why do you keep writing about this?" she asks. "It's none of your business. It's none of their business. We are working with the county."
She also adds a cautionary note, "We have an attorney in Northern Virginia. We're going to sue everyone."