The Hum Is Gone; Neighbors Are Relieved

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The R.A. Yancey Lumber Company on Route 250 near the I-64 interchange.

It’s quiet for now in Crozet and residents frustrated and exhausted by noisy days and sleepless nights have found relief––at least at night––from the intermittent but often continuous noise that plagued neighborhoods as far apart as Miller School Road, Old Trail and Westhall for almost two months. Tempers flared, accusations flew, and there were a couple of theories that didn’t work out, but in the end the noise was traced to a refurbished boiler that had been re-installed at R. A. Yancey Lumber Company in late August.

Bill Yoder, the Acentech acoustic consultant hired by Yancey Lumber, and Lisa Green, Albemarle County zoning compliance officer, determined Oct. 17 that the noise was indeed coming from inside Yancey Lumber. Alice Faintich of Old Trail––who first asked about the noise via the online bulletin board, Nextdoor, on September 8––said on that night, Yoder measured the noise level near her home. She said he was working with someone inside Yancey Lumber. “They shut down one piece of equipment, but the noise persisted,” she said. “They then shut down a second piece of equipment and we could clearly hear the sound wind down and then disappear.” Yoder confirmed the noise was well above the level allowed in Albemarle County at night.

Ironically, the decision to hire Yoder was made with the idea of putting an end to widespread speculation that the lumber company was the source of the noise, said Donnie Rose, Yancey’s president. Mary Beth Bowen of the Hive Creative Group (a Crozet public relations firm hired by Yancey) said the company did not believe the noise stemmed from the mill, as no new equipment had been installed. The boiler, which heats three kilns, had been removed in March and put back in service shortly before the noise complaints began.

The R.A. Yancey Lumber Company in Route 250 near the I-64 interchange. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Further adding to the mystery was the fact that the induction fan and smokestack––which were actually the sources of the noise––were not part of the refurbishment, Bowen said, speaking for Yancey Lumber. “Those parts have been used for years.”

Why did they suddenly become loud enough to be heard many miles away after the boiler was re-installed? “That’s the million dollar question,” Bowen said, “No one knows for sure.”

After being identified as the source of the noise, Yancey Lumber ordered a muffler to be custom-made for the stack, and asked for delivery to be expedited for installation in early November, if the timeline holds. Meanwhile, the company tinkered with its nighttime lumber curing operation, to see if adjustments to the drive frequency of the fan to reduce its speed would alleviate the noise.

“That clearly didn’t work out,” said White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek. “In fact, it seemed to make it worse.” She said people were angrier than ever when they knew the county had identified the source of the noise and it still did not stop. Calls and emails increased to Mallek and the county’s Lisa Green. On Nextdoor, sleep-deprived neighbors threatened lawsuits and pickets.

In desperation, Mallek wrote Green and Valerie Long (an attorney for Yancey) in an email that was later made public: “I do not think the health of the nearby residents can take another month of this,” Mallek wrote. “Nerves are frayed now.”

The R.A. Yancey Lumber Company office. Photo: Theresa Curry.

In response, Yancey Lumber found a way to place the induction fan in pilot light mode at night, a move that enables the operation to power back up and heat lumber during the day. This process helps preserve the lumber, said Bowen, but there won’t be any curing of the lumber––a 48-hour continuous process––until the new muffler arrives. She said measurements from Acentech confirmed this step, made October 21, caused noise levels to drop within county compliance levels, including in the residential areas it was monitoring.

In a statement released after the noise was traced to Yancey Lumber, President Donnie Rose said the Yancey family has owned and operated the mill in Crozet since 1949. “We are committed to being a good neighbor and community member,” he said. “We are extremely sorry for the disturbances and sleepless nights the kiln has caused. We want the community to know that we’re doing everything we can to keep that from happening again.” The Yancey Lumber Company employs 70 people, most of them local, not including the loggers, truck drivers, or those who haul the lumber, chips, or bark.

Even those who had been severely affected by weeks of noise disturbance responded positively to the relief of several good nights of sleep and Yancey’s public sharing of future plans: “We are grateful that the mill has chosen to respond to their neighbors’ noise concerns by running in pilot light mode during evenings and nights,” wrote Lillian Mezey of Old Trail in an email. Mezey said she hoped that when the muffler arrived, it would also keep the noise level at or below the present level during days and nights. She also expressed gratitude for the work of Mallek and Green in their response to citizen complaints.

Mallek said Yancey’s account of their role in the investigation corresponds with her experience with them throughout the ordeal, despite the couple of days of failed attempts to reduce the sound at night. “They’ve been nothing but cooperative from the start,” she said. She said county officials had also been thoroughly involved and cooperative.

What explains, then, the long lapse between the beginning of the noise nuisance in early September and its resolution in mid-October? “You have to remember that neither I nor the county are monitoring Nextdoor,” she said. “You actually have to call us directly.”

She recalled first hearing of the disturbance when the Crozet Gazette called her in late September, and as of then neither the police or county had been notified. “Believe me, I did hear plenty of complaints since then,” she said, “and from people from all kinds of neighborhoods, many of whom had never heard of Nextdoor.” She asked people not to assume that someone else has taken action: “It’s kind of like when the power goes off,” she said. “It’s better for more than one person to call than for everyone to think someone else has called.”

She acknowledged that there was some confusion about who in the county to contact with a noise complaint. “If it’s at night, call the police; if it’s during the day, call the zoning office.” Emily Kilroy, a spokesperson for the county, said both were involved and working together during the noise investigation.

Mallek also cited the elusive nature of the hum, which even at its loudest could be heard in some places and not in other locations nearby, or which could be extremely loud when the complaint was made, and disappear by the time county investigators arrived at the scene. But over time, the pattern of the neighborhoods complaining became clear. “What we saw was a circle with Yancey in the center,” she said.

Next door to Yancey, so also in the center of the circle, were the transmission lines for Dominion’s Dooms-Cunningham project, and a theory emerged that the noise might be related to a cart moving along the wires or wind blowing through the loose wires at night. “That idea was suggested by a VDOT engineer,” Mallek said. Although she and others advanced that theory for a few days, they abandoned it after the source was positively identified.

Mallek said she’s always glad to hear from people who have a concern but don’t know where to start. “I may not have the answers,” she said, “but I know who to call.”

Meanwhile, Yancey has set up a website where citizens can find new developments and file complaints, at www.rayancey lumber.com.

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