'Stump dump' rejected by panel Planners say facility creates excessive air and noise pollution

August 28, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Planning Board members added another chapter to one to the county's longest-running zoning controversies yesterday by unanimously rejecting a plan to put a zoning seal of approval on a notorious Clarksville "stump dump." Clarksville resident Alfred Bassler is seeking a special exception for 68.73 acres of his 430-acre site so that he can continue running a yard-waste composting facility, sawmill and mulch manufacturing operation.

Though Bassler's plan had the blessing of county zoning authorities, the board found that the facility creates too much noise and air pollution for its neighbors.

They "are already being abused," said Robert F. Geiger, the board's chairman, of those neighbors. "I don't think this is the place to do it."

The 12-year-old facility takes in tree stumps, grass and leaves and turns them into mulch and compost, a procedure that usually creates heat.

It is bordered by housing developments on three sides. More than 30 neighbors from Sheppard Lane, Twelve Tree Court and Chapel Chase Drive came to protest the rezoning, saying the compost creates dangerous fires and, at times, a horrible stench.

In its 12 years, there have been two fires at the site -- in 1991 and in June. Neighbors said the smoke lasted for days in both instances.

"The fires are a natural by-product of this process," said Jeffrey Rogers of Chapel Chase Drive.

But Bassler's attorney Thomas E. Lloyd said the county's fast pace of development makes the facility necessary to dispose of organic waste. He said the current practice of sending such waste to Richmond, Va., is not safe for the environment.

The compost created at the facility is "the dirt for the landscapers who want to build lawns for people who come out here and destroy the forests," Lloyd said.

But neighbors complained about the odor given off by rotting wood.

"There were seven days in August when I could not let my children outside" because of odor from the compost, said Jennifer Johnson Lee, who lives on Twelve Tree Court. "It's so powerful."

Bassler said he thinks the neighbors were exaggerating the problem.

"Interestingly enough, all these odors were reported when the red signs were posted" in June announcing yesterday's hearing, he said. "We had numerous pictures, displays, information and a $5,000 video to contradict what they say, but we were not allowed to present it."

Bassler's facility has been the source of controversy since it was created. It does not fit under any zoning category -- and has consequently remained a zoning violation -- yet it has continued to operate despite efforts to shut it down.

From 1986 to 1993 planning and zoning officials and Bassler disagreed about how to define the site. In 1993, they agreed to zone it as a "rubble fill" site.

Later that year, Bassler received permission from the state Department of the Environment to use the site as a demonstration project studying new composting science and technology. But Bassler needed zoning approval to continue the project, prompting him to go before the board.

"It's an absolute bureaucratic deadlock," said Lloyd, complaining that Bassler had tried to resolve this many times over the years. "Most of the time it's because we can't jump through all the hoops we have to because [officials] keep moving them."

But some of the five board members said much of the delay in deciding the fate of the site was because Bassler did not follow all the regulations.

Joseph Rutter, the county's director of planning and zoning, recommended approving the plan that would have granted an exception to allow the facility -- an industrial operation -- to operate in an area zoned rural.

But Rutter added 19 conditions, including where trucks carrying wood could pull in and the hours of operation. Some board members said they did not trust Bassler to follow the regulations.

"I am not sure Mr. Bassler will adhere to the conditions," said Geiger.

Board member Gary L. Kaufman asked: "Who is going to maintain and monitor this to make sure it sticks to the letter of the law?"

In their vote they added two conditions to Rutter's 19 if the Board of Appeals approves the special exception -- one of which called for inspections of the site to ensure that Bassler follows the conditions.

The board's recommendation will be presented to the Board of Appeals, which is expected to hear the case early next year.

Neighbors said they are confident they will convince the board to reach the same decision.

"It's not just polluting our neighborhood," Lee said. "It is affecting a vast area of Howard County."

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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