Open burn: Smoke heats up Belvedere’s neighbors

Residents in and around the Dunlora subdivision on Rio Road have noticed–as have travelers on Rio Road–a giant fire that's been burning for weeks in nearby woods. In fact, in the evening many have noticed sparks, smoke, and light well above the tree line.

"It's like a campfire," says County assistant fire chief James Barber, "but on a larger scale."

The conflagration is part of a land-clearing effort by Stonehaus Inc. for Belvedere, the company's massive new 700+ unit "green" development project. According to Barber, Stonehaus was issued a two-month open burn permit a month ago, and has been burning only wood in a pit and using a blower to limit the spread of smoke and ash.

Clearing land this way in the rural areas of the County is common, says Barber, but the practice– in the more densely populated Rio Road area– has angered neighbors, who have been complaining about the smell of potentially hazardous fumes, smoke in their homes, layers of ash and soot coating their cars, and the exodus of wildlife from the area. In addition, Barber says that multiple fire units have responded to four 911 calls about brush fires in the area from residents who believed their neighborhood was aflame.

"We are waking up with smoke in our houses," say Robin Hoffman, who lives on nearby Huntington Road. "No one here can let their kids out."

Barber says he's had complaints about the burning from many people in the area. While he says Stonehaus would be required to stop if the burning were causing a legitimate health hazard– even if only one person complained– he adds that he has "investigated every complaint and determined there wasn't a problem."

That's little consolation to Hoffman, a nurse and former New York City resident who says she witnessed the damage caused by "particle matter" after 9/11. "People are still getting sick because of the debris from the fires," she says. "It sticks in the lungs."

Indeed, according to information on the EPA and American Lung Association websites, particle pollution caused by burning wood, coal, oil, and diesel fuel can seriously aggravate heart and lung disease, and the ALA recommends that communities support efforts to ban outdoor burning of construction and yard waste.

"I hope it's over with soon," says another Huntington Road resident, Ronald Sykes, headmaster of Covenant School. "It's going on right in back of our lot, and our cars have been covered with ash."

"It's just extremely sad," says Sykes' neighbor, Eleanor Butner, a Hospice nurse. "I wouldn't mind breathing in all the smoke if the animals had a place to go."

While Butner, like Hoffman, is concerned about the potential danger of the smoke and fumes ("Even with my windows closed, I can smell it,"she says), particularly on children and neighbors with lung ailments, she's more angry about the land "scalping" that's been driving deer, skunks, possums, foxes, and other animals onto her property.

"I've looked over at those woods for 30 years, and now they're gone," she says. "Hundreds of animals have lost their homes, and now they're looking for someplace to live."

Butner wonders why the County approved a development like Belevedere, when there are so many available houses, and when traffic on Rio Road is already so congested. "They opened Pandora's box when they approved that development," she says. "But I guess that's the price of progress."

According to Stonehaus development director Chris Schooley, the health hazards caused by the burn are not as bad as people might think, and the company has been trying to control the amount of ash released.

"Actually, more particle matter is released by cars than by a fire like this," he says. "We are burning only wood in a pit, and using a blower to create a pillar of heat, which greatly reduces particle matter."

However, over on Belvedere Drive, Fairview Swim and Tennis Club member Derek Oppen describes how the club has been affected by the burning. "There's been ash in the pool almost continuously," he says, "so much that you couldn't see the bottom."

Hoffman claims that the developer has been burning other debris from the site, including tires, a charge Schooley denies. "We've been separating the non-burnable material from the wood and hauling the non-burnable stuff way," he says.

But Hoffman says she's spoken to neighbors who've seen workers pitching debris other than wood into the massive fire, and she showed a Hook reporter a partially burned plastic container and Chinese take-out box (see photo, right), which she says she retrieved from the Belvedere site.

Barber says he has visited the burn site numerous times and discovered no violations, which would include burning any treated or "unnatural" debris, and leaving the fire unattended.

While Schooley says he understands the burning has been difficult for the neighbors to accept, he emphasizes that the process has violated no permit regulations. "It's a process that professionals are handling," he says. "We understand it's been an issue, but we should be done with the burn in about a week."

Still, after consulting an attorney and going door-to-door in her neighborhood, a riled-up Hoffman says she's filed a request for an injunction in the County Clerk's office seeking an immediate halt to the burning, claiming that residents in Dunlora and on Huntington and Freestate Roads, and at the nearby churches are being "inundated by these fumes." She's asked concerned residents to document their experiences during the burn and to collect samples of ash in jars.

Hoffman appears to have found a sympathetic ear in County supervisor David Slutzky, who lives on nearby Northfield Road, and who said in an email to Hoffman that he found it "quite frustrating that we must suffer the smell of this type of burn." Although Slutzky could not be reached for comment by press time, in his email he said he has brought up the issue with fellow supervisors, but each time they appeared unwilling to limit this kind of burning to rural areas only.

Butner expressed skepticism when told that Stonehaus plans to make Belvedere an eviromentally friendly development with natural areas and energy-effiecient homes. She wondered why, if they were being so friendly to the enviroment, the developers chose to burn the wood instead of hauling it away.

"They better build an environmentally friendly development," she says. "Because if they don't do what they say their going to do, they're going to trigger the ire of all of Albemarle County."

9 comments

First off, it's "Dunlora", not "Donlora". Learn how to spell. Second, Dunlora has about half as many homes on a larger plot than Belvedere, so there was much less clearing and much more effort to preserve native flora and fauna. Third, the real issue at hand, which was the point of the article, that Stonehaus is clearing large tracts of land, itis the way they're doing it by burning everything in a large pit which is resulting in many citizens being exposed to smoke and fumes and property to be covered in ash. Stonehaus has offered some free car wash passes to make themselves look better. Guess what? Most everyone in Dunlora parks their cars in their garage. We don't need a car wash. We need clean air and a power washing to clean our homes and decks.

Ryan Estes: There's been plenty of press about the burial ground and Stonehaus' sensitivity to it, including a plan to mark the cemetary. It was negelected for years. Read a newspaper every once in a while. Geez.

To residents of "Donlora" : Do you think the building of your development didn't require land clearing and hundreds of animals losing their homes? Come on! Talk about the drawbridge effect.

With very little effort anyone can investigate and find out what these Constuction people burn.By taking samples that are on peoples hot tubs and analyzing the contents.By seeing the numbers of children in the area as well as residences in general who have a new respiratory illness and the cause as diagnosed by their Doctors.The Fire Marshal has never been at the site unless I called and anyone living on FreeState road can tell you what was burning and so can I since this was my bike trip everyday for exercise.I cried when I saw the trees gone and the demolished homes on fire.The real story is there is a way to have these things done and keeping land intact but greed is allowed and the cost will be our health and thats everyones problem.So get real and stop the irresponsible activity now and isn't that a simple idea?

Could Stonehause create any worse PR for itself? Not smart...there are clearly better methods available...

hell yeah! It's green. And just think this is only Phase One!!!

The wood can be ground in a tub grinder.

From there, it has many options. It is mulch. It can be used as landfill conver (conserving soil). It can be burned as a biofuel in an electric generating plant where it is burned hot and particulates are scrubbed.

The Ivy Materials Facility (former landfill) accepts it, but it charges too much to accept wood at $46 per ton. Are you listening, Albemarle, stop charging exorbitant rates on accepting vegetative material. Go over to Augusta, and Augusta county accepts that material at $15 per ton.

Nobody wants huge root balls. Really the only cheap way to get rid of giant root balls is to buy cheap land in Buckingham and just dump them, or burn the as StonedHouse is doing.

Green Development? As that what they call it when everything is clear cut and bulldozed down to sub soil? Ohh except for the old aesbestos filled houses and existing freed black burial grounds. Do you realize these houses are being builton freed black burial grounds? Did you see poltergeist? You have to see it for yourself go back to Fairview and check out the moonscape keep going down free state road and look for the old freed black cemetaries on your right and left. The county really bent over for the almighty dollar on this one. I guess all the houses currently on the market are not good enough? Howbout a story on what this place was. A place where free blacks lived and died. This place has a great cool history that is being excavated and moved and built over. Plants and animals have disappeared from this place to make room for brick and vinyl sided McMansions a Starbucks and some other bullshit. Sprawl has reached a new level here in the ville and it is destroying one of the great qualities this town has to offer and it saddens me deeply. Green development they must be refering to greenbacks.

The "sensitivity" to the burial sites are evident on the moonscaped site. The obvious ones are unexcavated and have a ribbon around the site. It is the only place where trees remain standing. The same thing happened when DUNLORA was developed. The burial sites where dug up and moved for the most part. I can show you where burial sites stood only now to be occupied by a $800K McMansion. I do feel much better now knowing that a plan exist for these sites. The Developers and the County always have a plan. How reassuring. Bottom line the entire area was better when it was "neglected for years" Look at it now. Really go and look at it. It is Fucking tragic what the county and this developer have done. But you are right I should calm down and read the paper once in a while. Sage advice. THanks.