Dave McNair

"We're not looking to industrialize anything," says Bobby Vess, responding to complaints from Keswick residents unhappy about his proposed mulch processing plant. He insists that the complaints are coming from people who don't understand what he's trying to do.<BR></B><small>PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR</small></div>Bobby Vess seems an unlikely "greenie." After 30 years in the excavation business, he looks like he'd be more comfortable operating a back-hoe than talking sustainability, but his plan to build a mulch processing facility east of town could end the practice of burning as a way to clear land and create a practical use for wood that might have otherwise gone up in smoke. 


Last fall, for instance, the developers of Belvedere on Rio Road, a village-model development touting itself as a "sustainable community," got in some hot water with some neighbors after burning wood debris in a giant pit on the site.

 Developer Stonehaus began handing out free car wash passes to nearby Dunlora residents, and assuring neighbors that the burn operation was legal, was not environmentally hazardous, and being monitored by the County fire department. Besides, Stonehaus rep Chris Schooley told the Hook, company research indicated that in terms of environmental impact, there was little difference between proper burning and grinding and hauling the material away.

Except the cost, of course.

As Vess points out, local trash service companies often have to haul large stumps and trees to facilities 50 or 70 miles away because there are no local grinding operations big enough to handle the volume.  

"We gave the site contractor at Belvedere a price for clearing the land," says Vess. "But they turned us down. Everything was slashed and burned instead."

And as far as Vess is concerned, that's a waste of perfectly good wood. Had his facility been operational, all that burned wood could have been turned into mulch. Yes, Vess understands that that would make good recycling sense, but more importantly for him, it also makes good business sense.

Like Peter van der Linde, who's building an $11 million trash recycling plant just eight miles east on 250, Vess hopes to turn a profit by turning what folks don't want into cash.

Because he'll be selling his mulch for a profit, and because his facility will be so close to town (it will be on a 100-acre piece of land West of van der Linde's project, and just East of Glenmore Country Club and Keswick Hall, near the intersection of 250 East and Union Mills/ Black Cat Road), it won't cost as much for developers or city, county and state agencies (Vess says he already has an agreement with VDOT to take wood debree they create) to choose the haul-and-grind option. In addition, he says that County fire officials are excited about the idea as well, given the potential hazards and headaches with burn operations.

But convincing developers to haul and grind appears to be only half the battle for Vess. He also has to deal with some angry Keswick residents who fear the facility will be noisy, smelly, and potentially hazardous. They also feel their neck of 250 East is being "industrialized." Well ahead of the the first scheduled review of Vess' special use permit request, Keswick residents have mobilized to fight the project, and contacted the Hook to voice their concerns.

"We as a community are surprised that the County would even entertain such a special use application," says Fox Hunt Drive resident Colt Peyton, who says he worries about the amount of water the plant will use, the noise, truck traffic, and dust that will be created, and the danger of mulch pile fires and water table contamination. 

Keswick Farms resident Alan Higgins says they've already begun handing out fliers about the project in his neighborhood, and have been posting banners and signs along Route 250 with "Don't Industrialize Keswick" themes. 

Eric Wagnor, also a Keswick Farms resident, can't understand why the County would consider approving such a plant in that location.

"Keswick Hall just went to great lengths to have their golf course certified by the Audubon Society," he said, " which is an incredible contrast with the people who want to build the mulch processing plant."

Like Peyton, Wagner worries about the noise and the risk of fire, and how communities like his, as well as Glenmore and Keswick Hall, will be affected by such a large industrial operation nearby. 

In addition, Peyton, Wagner, and Higgins also fear they may be powerless to stop the construction of the facility, as it appears to fall under the "forestal" uses allowed in the rural zoning designation. 

"We're not looking to industrialize anything," says Vess, responding to the complaints of the residents. "It is not going to be an eyesore to anybody." He insists that the complaints are coming from people who don't understand what he's trying to do.

However, some of that confusion may have been caused by the special use permit that Vess filed with the County, which says the plant would receive wood waste from construction, shipping, as well as from land excavation. Indeed, Higgins says that Vess' current explanation of the property use isn't consistent with what the neighbors were originally told during an early information session with Vess on the property. 

"Mr. Vess changed his story multiple time during the meeting we had in May," says Higgins. "Several of the attendees noticed the evolution of the scope of this project."

Indeed, in a follow-up call to Vess' partner and brother, Ken Vess, whose name is on the special use application, we asked why the SUP application said one thing and his brother had said another. Vess explained that the facility would indeed take natural wood products from construction and shipping palettes, and that wood chips of different sizes will be shipped to schools and paper mills for bio-fuel.

"The inconsistencies in Vess' statements versus what we heard and what is in their application points to an effort on their part to make this project more appealing than it really is," says Keswick resident Matthew Bassignani.

"If you want to be trusted," says Higgins, commenting on the changing plans for the project, "...consistency is vital."  

Bobby Vess says he also plans to improve the intersection at State Route 794, already VDOT approved, so that trucks can be more safely routed off 250 to the facility. He estimates there will be 60 dump trucks a day traveling to the facility five days a week from 7am to 5pm. The facility will be open on Saturday from 7am to 1pm and closed on Sunday and holidays. He says that wood piles will be only 12-feet high max, and that to prevent fire hazards no piles will remain for very long. Water used to supply large under ground storage tanks for potable water and fire suppression will come from a well on the property that has no nearby homes connected to its aquifer, he says. He also points out that the coloring used on the mulch contains absolutely no contaminants. "It's like food coloring," he says.

However, Bassignani, who is a physician, points out that dyes are not present at the levels in foods that may be used during Vess' dying purposes, and he worries that the dyes will leach into the soil and ultimately make their way back to the area's drinking water supply.

"In my opinion," says Bassignani, "there is no such thing as a 'safe' additive, and it shouldn't be there in the first place. Workers in the dye industry are at a much higher risk for bladder, ureteral, and kidney carcinomas due to exposure to those dyes. I certain do not want Vess' mulching facility contaminating my drinking water with unnecessary and potentially toxic dyes."

 Vess says he has also run sound tests using his new TG 7000 tub grinder, measuring sound levels from several of the nearby houses. "The noise from their air conditioning units, and the noise coming from 250 were louder than the machine," he says.

However, for Bassignani, increased traffic noise will be the problem.

"Road improvements not withstanding, the noise from 50 or 100 trucks a day– let's remember the round trip– will result in an increased noise burden from 250, which is less than a quarter-mile from my house. As it is, I can already hear route 64 traffic in the winters when the leaves are off the trees, and that's much farther away from my home."

Keswick residents like Bassignani appear ready to stop Vess from building his facility, as the existing Allied Waste transfer station at Zion Crossroads, van der Linde's soon-to-be-finished recycling facility, and now Vess' project, seem to be signaling an industrialization of that direction of 250 East that residents want no part of.

Showing us the most recent site drawing for the facility, Vess suddenly lifts it up to reveal a previous plan for the same property (not his), a special use permit for which was approved by the County in 1992, though it was never built: an outdoor summer theater complex. 

"Imagine the number of busses that would be coming and going to that theater, " says Vess, implying that his operation would be no more obtrusive, if not less.

However, for Keswick residents once envisioning summer concerts and a thrilling dramatic presentation of Jack Jouett's historic ride, the distant sound of a tub grinder and the smell of mulch might be too much to take. 

Still, the plan for the mulch plant appears to be consistent with the theater plan in one regard– it's certainly creating a little drama in Keswick.