NEWS- 'Damn nuisance:' Burn pit angers 'green' project neighbors
Burned items that Huntington Road resident Robin Hoffman says she found at the Belvedere burn site.PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
Over the last month, residents in and around the Dunlora subdivision on Rio Road have noticed– as have travelers on Rio Road– a fire that's been burning for weeks in nearby woods. In fact, in the evening many 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 about a month ago, and has been burning wood in a pit and using a blower to limit the spread of smoke and ash.
However, according to Huntington Road resident G.L. Kirby Jr., who was a volunteer Charlottesville firefighter for 35 years, the smoke and ash were "real bad" when the burning began.
"The pit wasn't big enough," says Kirby, "and they were picking stuff up and dropping it on the fire, which kicked up a lot of smoke and ash."
Kirby says he had to call Barber twice, and that a neighbor thought her house was on fire because there was smoke coming down through her attic. Since then, Kirby says, the developers have "curtailed the problem a lot."
Clearing land this way is common in the rural areas of the county, says Barber, but the practice seems to have caused some distress in the densely populated Rio Road area. In fact, Barber admits that multiple fire units have responded to four 911 calls about brush fires from residents who believed their neighborhood was aflame.
"We are waking up with smoke in our houses," says Robin Hoffman, who lives on nearby Huntington Road. "No one here can let their kids out."
"My car is covered with ash, and so is my house," says neighbor Pablo Zatz. "I was held captive in my house because of the smell of the burn."
"I hope it's over with soon," says another Huntington Road resident, Ronald Sykes, headmaster of Covenant School. "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. I've looked over at those woods for 30 years, and now they're gone."
Over on Belvedere Drive, Fairview Swim and Tennis Club member Derek Oppen describes how the club, the perennial powerhouse in competitions, has been affected. "There's been ash in the pool almost continuously," he says, "so much that you couldn't see the bottom."
Barber admits 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 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 Association recommends that communities support efforts to ban outdoor burning of construction and yard waste.
However, according to Stonehaus development director Chris Schooley, the health hazards caused by the burn are not as bad as people 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," says Schooley. "We're burning only wood in a pit, and using a blower to create a pillar of heat, which greatly reduces particle matter." In addition, Schooley says their research indicated that in terms of environmental impact, there is little difference between proper burning and grinding and hauling the material away.
Still, on October 4, Schooley sent an email to Dunlora residents acknowledging the problem and offering car-wash passes to people with ash on their cars. He also reassured residents that the air quality was fine, despite the persistent smell.
However, 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 away," 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 that she says she retrieved from the Belvedere site.
"I recognize the smell of burnt rubber, and these people were burning rubber," says Zatz.
But 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 said about a week ago. "We understand it's been an issue, but we should be done with the burn in about a week."
Neighbor Hoffman appears to have found a sympathetic ear in county supervisor David Slutzky, who lives on nearby Northfield Road, and who calls the burning a "damn nuisance."
In fact, Slutzky thinks it's "outrageous" to allow this kind of burning in high density areas. "I understand the cost is significant to haul this stuff away, but burning like this shouldn't be happening in the growth areas. It's just wrong," he says.
While Slutzky appreciates Stonehaus' efforts to comply with the regulations, even going beyond what was necessary, he thinks the laws regarding open burning may need to be changed or modified.
Ironically, that's something that Stonehaus is inclined to agree with. Both Schooley and Stonehaus VP Frank Stoner point out that regulations required them to put the fire out (by dousing it with water) before 10pm every night, which they pinpoint as the true cause of the offending smoke and ash.
"If we had been allowed to burn through the night," says Schooley, "it would have taken about half the time and produced much less ash and smoke."
As for Slutzky, he says he raised a burning issue about a year ago when there were similar complaints about open burning in the nearby Still Meadow development, but he says board members appeared unwilling to limit burning to rural areas.
Of course, that might change once supervisors starting getting an earful from angry residents near Belvedere. 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 seeking an immediate halt to the burning, claiming that residents in Dunlora and on Huntington and Free State roads, and at the nearby churches, are being "inundated by these fumes" and experiencing health problems. She's asked concerned residents to document their experiences during the burn and to collect samples of the ash in jars.
"People around here are really ticked off," says neighbor Kirby.