Representatives from Yancey Lumber Mill spoke to the Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) and addressed citizen concerns at the committee’s November 13 meeting, providing details on a set of special exceptions the company plans to request of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
A total of eight exceptions are intended to retroactively bring Yancey into compliance with regulations put in place in the decades since the mill was built. The mill has never been required to adhere to noise, vibration, and setback ordinances, most of which went into effect in 1980, because it was constructed in 1949 and the new ordinances applied only to subsequent operations. Company management was not even aware of some of the more obscure sawmill-specific regulations on the books.
Now, however, Yancey’s plans for a $10 million investment in a large new piece of equipment called a sorter/stacker will not comply with current setback requirements, and the company will need a special exception to proceed. Placing the sorter/stacker project on hold, Yancey has decided to ask the county for exceptions from all of the post-1980 regulations in one comprehensive request.
Speaking on behalf of Yancey at the CCAC meeting, local real estate attorney and Crozet resident Valerie Long first described the lengthy process of finding and addressing “the hum,” a strange tone that began emanating from the mill last year that disturbed many Crozet residents. Yancey’s nearly year-long investigation included hiring an acoustical consultant, ordering expensive custom-designed “silencers” from Canada (which didn’t solve the problem), and finally procuring a specialized European fan insert to reduce the noise. Long described the company’s dedication to finding a solution to the hum, as well as its planned investment in new equipment, as evidence of Yancey’s longstanding commitment to the community.
Long then presented specifics on each special exception (listed in a nearby exhibit) that Yancey plans to request. Covering perimeter setback requirements, noise and vibration maximum levels, and limitations on allowable hours of operation, the regulations encompass both industry-wide heavy industrial and sawmill-specific rules.
Each exception would bring the mill into compliance as the mill currently stands, not as subsequent rules require. For instance, under current (1980) regulations, sawmill buildings must be 100 feet back from any lot line, so Yancey is requesting an exception from the 100-foot requirement down to a 35-foot setback, because that distance allows all existing mill buildings to comply. Similarly, the company is requesting noise and vibration ordinance exceptions to reflect existing levels.
During the question period following Long’s presentation, a contingent of homeowners who live near the mill (both adjacent to and across Rt. 250 from the property) expressed grave concerns about the special exceptions. A neighbor across Rt. 250 from the mill, a retired nurse whose house was built in the 1700s and who takes care of his two-year-old grandson at home, complained about the noise and dust from operations and said he thought the problems were increasing.
“I’ve been here 37 years, and I see a pattern of noncompliance at the mill,” he said. “It seems like over time, [the operations] are going on earlier, and there’s a constant increase in activity and noise and dust. We have to be careful to safeguard the village of Yancey Mills.” Regarding the setback rules, he continued, “these health regulations were put in place for a reason, and I’m very concerned about narrowing all these areas.”
The latter sentiment was echoed by other neighbors, particularly regarding the noise levels at the mill. “You are asking for 74 decibels [during the day], and that is above the sound of a vacuum cleaner,” said a parent of two young children who lives within sight of the mill. “You are saying that it’s okay to expose us to that type of noise level, and I’m concerned. You are doing the community a grave disservice by not exploring the reasons these restrictions are in place.”
In response, acoustical consultant Bill Yoder explained his findings when he took sample noise measurements around the perimeter of the Yancey property. “The new sorter/stacker will add about 2 dba [decibels] of noise, which we characterize as ‘not noticeable,’” he said. For perspective, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “typical sound levels” describe 40 decibels as a soft whisper, 60 decibels as a conversation from 3 feet away, and 80 decibels as a passing freight train from 100 feet away.
Yoder noted that overall mill noise was difficult to measure because of the constant nearby traffic on Rt. 250. “To give you an idea, an average measurement out at Rt. 250 of just ambient traffic without the facility operating is on the order of 74 dba,” he said. The special exception asks for a maximum of 80 decibels during the day along Rt. 250 to provide a small margin of error in measurement.
Long stressed that the exceptions are meant to represent existing conditions at the mill, not to request higher levels of noise and vibration than those emanating from the mill’s current operations. “This is just to cover what is already happening and has been happening at the mill site for decades,” she said. “The exceptions are not an increase from current conditions.”
One exception may provide an additional form of relief for the mill’s neighbors. Yancey has purchased an additional 10 feet of VDOT right of way along the mill’s entrance on Rt. 250 to comply with setbacks for an existing de-barker machine. The space may provide room for a row of trees or other plantings to serve as a noise barrier, and Yancey is in consultation with a landscape architect about buffering the areas in front of the large wood stacks and parking spaces near the entrance.
The set of special exceptions is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors for approval in the next couple of months. To view all the slides from the CCAC presentation, click here.