Yancey Lumber Corporation is requesting a set of special exceptions from the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to remedy both current and potential zoning violations, but the plan is meeting stiff resistance from its nearest neighbors. After living amicably within sight of the sawmill and lumber yard on Rt. 250 for decades, local residents feel that the company has overstepped its boundaries with the request.
“The mill is not complying with the regulations now,” said next door neighbor Lisa Swales. “If [the county] increases the limits, what are our protections for the future?”
A total of eight exceptions are intended to retroactively bring the mill, built in 1949, into compliance with regulations put in place since 1980. The mill is legally exempt from these noise, vibration, and setback ordinances because the new rules applied only to operations and equipment put in place subsequent to 1980. However, after buying and beginning to install a new $10 million “sorter/stacker” two years ago, mill officials realized that the new equipment did not comply with current setback regulations and that they would need a special exception to proceed.
Placing the sorter/stacker project on hold, Yancey is following the advice of the County Zoning Administrator, who suggested that the company research all regulations that the property does not comply with (such as those that apply to storage structures built post-1980) and request special exceptions to address each. If approved, all of the buildings and equipment and the proposed sorter/stacker would be allowed to continue in their current locations.
As detailed in the nearby exhibit, the mill is requesting exceptions for setbacks from lot lines and nearby dwellings as well as noise and vibration limits, in some cases by substantial amounts.
Forgiveness vs. permission
“That machine [the new sorter/stacker] should be 600 feet back from our house, and it’s more like half that,” said Swales, who lives on property bordering the mill to the east and whose house, Five Oaks, was built in 1810. Rather than move the equipment farther away from nearby homes, Yancey is asking the county to give it a pass on the setback requirements.
Mill representatives say that Yancey management was unaware of the specific regulations, both heavy-industrial and sawmill-specific, that governed their business when they purchased the equipment in 2017 and installed it 35 feet from the Swales’ property line. Now that the large pieces have been put in place—the sorter is half-constructed and the stacker is already operating—Yancey says that moving them is not an option.
“The new equipment is vital for the mill to be able to remain competitive in the industry, and the sorter/stacker must be connected to the existing mill buildings where it is now in order to be efficient,” said Valerie Long, a real estate attorney with Williams Mullen who is representing Yancey in its special exceptions request. “In response to community feedback, we’ve revised our proposals several times to ask for only narrow modifications to the ordinances in specific areas where needed.”
For example, to comply with rules that require mill structures and storage of lumber, logs, chips, and timber be 100 feet from lot lines, Yancey is asking the county to exempt the specific buildings and storage areas currently within the 100-foot boundary so they may remain in their current locations, rather than asking for a blanket release from the ordinance across the whole boundary. (See Exhibit 4.) This is a refinement from its original request to reduce the entire mill boundary requirement to 35 feet.
Despite this careful parsing, residents say that a spirit of compromise is lacking because the mill is still unwilling to move or change its operations in any significant way to comply with the rules as written. “The way the information is being presented to us by Yancey is, instead of coming into compliance we’re asking for exemptions in order not to follow the regulations,” said Terry Maynard, the mill’s southern boundary neighbor. “But the building codes are there to preserve the quality of life for the residents, and by exempting the mill you’re removing the protections that we have to live next to the mill.”
Loud and clear
In addition to setback reductions from nearby dwellings and mill property lines, the mill also requires exemptions from ordinances that govern elevated noise and vibration levels. While current regulations stipulate a maximum of 60 dBA (a weighted measure of decibels of sound) at any “residential receiving zone boundaries,” or property lines, during daytime hours, Yancey is requesting a 70-dBA allowance at the Swales’ property line and a 77-dBA allowance at the mill’s Rt. 250 property line, directly across from the Hillsboro neighborhood.
“Honestly, for them to ask for an increase in the decibel level at this point is just not neighborly at all,” said Debbi Meslar-Little, who has lived in Hillsboro for 22 years. “It’s wrong. None of us wants the mill to close—it’s an important source of tax revenue and employment, and it’s been here a long time. But there are things they could have done and could still do to be better neighbors.”
Ash Singh and his family have lived on Hillsboro Lane for eight years and he says the noise levels have crept up steadily, particularly recently. “It looks to me like they’ve known for a long time that they are out of compliance at 67 decibels or more, and they’ve never tried to correct it,” said Singh. “Now they want exemptions to 77 decibels, above the sound of a vacuum cleaner, but if you do that then you’re only considering the mill and not the neighbors.”
Bill Yoder, an acoustic engineer hired by Yancey to analyze mill noise levels for the special exceptions request, measured current sound level at the Swales’ property line at 69 dBA and estimated that the new equipment would contribute an additional 2 dBA for a total sound level of 71 dBA. (That estimate was based on sound measurements taken from a different, older sorter/stacker structure on mill property.) Yoder’s report notes that, in terms of human hearing, “a 10dBA increase in sound is associated with a perceived doubling in sound level.”
“[Yancey] makes it sound as if we are some kind of people creating a storm in a teacup about this, like it’s just a few decibels more, just a little thing,” said Singh. “But it’s not little thing, it’s a whole lot of continuous disturbance that gets very bothersome over a long period of time.”
A matter of trust
Yancey representatives stress that the exceptions simply reflect current noise and vibration levels, not increases. “This is just to cover what is already happening and has been happening at the mill site for decades,” said Long at a November 2019 community meeting. “The exceptions are not an increase from current conditions.”
Yet it is the mill’s sustained operation at levels beyond existing safety-oriented ordinances that has galvanized neighbors to action, inspiring them to take their own sound level measurements, research setback ordinances, and contact county officials, who issued a notice of violation to the mill regarding the new stacker in December 2019. “People ask how they could have gotten away with [non-compliance], and the answer we get from the county is that none of us reported it,” said Swales. “But it never occurred to me to police the mill.”
Singh takes issue with the mill’s proposed noise limit at its entrance along Rt. 250: “77 dBA, after removal of ambient sound level.” Ambient sound at that location is mostly traffic noise, which is measured and used to discount the mill’s noise level using a mathematical formula, but Singh says the two measures are not independent. “What they don’t acknowledge is that the tractor-trailers coming and going from the mill contribute a great deal of the noise on 250, and obviously wouldn’t be there but for the mill operation,” he said.
The noise ordinance exceptions in particular require a leap of faith for mill neighbors because the noise levels of not-yet-operational machinery (such as the new sorter) and its intended enclosures cannot be tested until they are constructed. Some neighbors would like to see better verification and hard evidence.
“I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of portraying what it’s going to be like when [the new equipment] is in operation,” said Maynard, whose home was built in the 1800s and stands only 75 feet from the mill property line. “It’s just guesses. They should go to another lumber mill that has the exact same machinery and take noise readings to validate what they’re saying.”
Yancey representatives are confident they will be able to keep the sorter noise levels at or below their proposed 70-77 dBA range near the equipment (see Exhibit 6) by enclosing both the stacker and sorter inside walled buildings which will be equipped with additional “sound attenuation” material, and by constructing an additional tall barrier wall to bridge the gap between the two machine enclosures.
“We will comply with [these sound limits], and if for some reason the enclosures and noise attenuation measures and other things don’t work, if that’s not sufficient, then we’ll take whatever other measures are necessary to be compliant,” said Long. “However, our acoustical engineer is confident that those will work.”
At root, mill neighbors wonder how Yancey could have been ignorant of regulations that it should have known applied to the sawmill industry. “Just as a business decision, what company would invest millions of dollars in new equipment without knowing if it complies with zoning?” said Swales. “I’m wondering if they really want to be part of the community, because once they get all these special exceptions, they all convey to a new buyer,” she said.
Indeed, the January 2019 Virginia Supreme Court decision May vs. R. A. Yancey Lumber Corp.—a dispute between three of the Yancey siblings over ownership rights—revealed that the company had executed a letter of intent to sell the mill in May 2017, around the same time that the new sorter/stacker was being acquired. Though Yancey representatives say that the equipment plans were in the works long before the potential mill sale, it was the survey done in anticipation of that sale that first revealed the setback violations.
Long says that new company leadership, including third-generation Yancey family member and vice president Patrick May and president Donnie Rose, have no plans to sell the mill and are laying the groundwork for its secure future. “Once this team is able to get through the special exception process, they want to get the mill where it needs to be, operating in a more professional, efficient, and safe manner, and to be a better neighbor,” said Long. “The challenge is that they don’t have any options other than the sorter/stacker to make that vision work.”
Maynard has started a petition at change.org to rally citizens to object to Yancey’s zoning exceptions for structures put in place since the ordinance changes in 1980, and the petition has garnered over 120 signatures so far. “I’m more concerned about the future state of the mill and some of the operations that they’ve put in place in the last two years,” than in rehashing the past, Maynard said. “I don’t want the mill to close. This is just to protect the quality of life of residents around the mill, whose houses have been there longer than the mill.”
“I understand why they are so anxious to get this whole [exceptions] thing passed because they’re paying interest every month on the new equipment and they still have reduced capacity, but is that our fault?” said Singh. “They made a bad business decision and now want the neighbors to bear the responsibility for it. It’s as simple as that.”
The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings have been delayed due to ongoing government closures. As of this writing, Yancey has requested a hearing before the Planning Commission at the earliest possible date, but the county is currently unable to offer a timeline for review.
For more information, please visit www.rayanceylumber.com.