After several months of delays due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Planning Commission took up a Yancey Lumber Mill special exceptions request at its June 23 meeting. Yancey is asking to be exempted from zoning regulations passed in 1980 regarding equipment and building setbacks from nearby residences and lot lines as well as noise and vibration maximum limits and hours of operation. See the Gazette’s April story for an in-depth look at the requests.
The mill was technically exempt (deemed non-complying, but allowed) from the 1980 comprehensive rezoning because it was built in 1949, and the new rules only applied to structures and equipment installed after 1980. However, after buying and beginning to install a new, multi-million-dollar “sorter/stacker” two years ago, mill officials realized that the new equipment’s position on mill property did not comply with current setback regulations and would require a special exception to proceed.
Instead of focusing solely on the sorter/stacker, Yancey decided to ask the county for exemptions from zoning rules for all situations in which it is currently in violation, covering both pre- and post-1980 equipment and buildings. At its June 23 meeting, the Planning Commission (PC) recommended approval of most of the 19 special exceptions that would allow structures existing as of June 12, 2020 to remain. Key denials include those exceptions for the stacker/sorter setback reductions, for increasing daytime and nighttime noise level limits, and for allowing kiln operations 24 hours a day.
More than a dozen commenters spoke in the virtual public hearing segment of the meeting, both in favor of and against the exception requests. Lumber association representatives noted the critical role Yancey plays in logging operations in Virginia and as a local source of employment, and Yancey vice president and third-generation family member Patrick May emphasized noise remediation efforts that the mill has planned for the sorter/stacker, such as a muffling building to enclose it and plantings to serve as a buffer at some lot lines.
May alluded to comments in the planning department staff report pointing to the fact that the company did not apply for building permits for post-1980 mill expansions (such as the $5 million sorter/stacker), a process which would have revealed setback and other requirements before the large investments were made. “In hindsight, I wish I had been running the company earlier, because I would have made sure we did go through appropriate channels,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are in the worst possible position now, where we’re just hoping we can survive.”
The sorter/stacker’s construction was halted when the rules violations were recognized, but the massive equipment currently sits 35 feet from the nearest property line while the ordinance requires a 100-foot setback. It is 350 feet from the nearest dwelling, while the ordinance requires 600 feet. The sorter remains unfinished, but the stacker is currently in operation.
Valerie Long, an attorney with real estate firm Williams Mullen who is representing Yancey in its exception application with the county, said the company was simply ignorant of the rules. “They just did not understand or know that these supplemental regulations applied to them—they didn’t know what they didn’t know,” said Long. “Had they had an inkling that it was required it would have been very easy to sit down with the county and get their help at that point. It would have been a complicated application as it is now, but it would have been a lot easier to do then.”
But Yancey’s claim of ignorance did not sit well with PC members. “Yancey had applied for several variances for other buildings and equipment twice in the 1990s,” said commissioner Rick Randolph. “Therefore we know they understood the process with the county. Then we get to 2017 and they’re putting up a sorter/stacker without applying for a permit. I’m just struck that they launched forward without any consultation with the county.”
White Hall District representative Jennie More agreed. “The company got a building permit for portable equipment for asphalt in 1991, which indicates that there was knowledge that permits are needed,” said More. “It simply doesn’t reconcile that there was a complete misunderstanding of the rules over the years.”
Neighbors echoed the PC’s concerns, calling the mill’s duty to be aware of regulations part of its due diligence. “This isn’t a community versus mill issue,” said Terry Maynard, whose property abuts the mill to the south. “We want to keep the quality and integrity of the neighborhood intact, and we believe you [Yancey] have a responsibility to understand what you are doing before you make a $5 million investment.”
Current noise level ordinances limit average sound levels to 60 dBA (a weighted measure of decibels) during the day and 55 dBA at night, and local residents have been complaining of steadily rising noise from the mill for the past several years. Yancey’s request affirms their suspicions, as the mill had asked to raise the limits to 77 dBA (after removal of ambient sound levels) at the Rt. 250 property line and 65 dBA at night, which would allow the mill to continue operating at its current noise levels.
In denying the noise exception, the PC staff report tied the noise levels to the unauthorized expansions. “Expansions occurred after 1980 and these expansions increased noise levels,” read the report. “None of the expansions were reviewed for compliance with the ordinance.” The report stated that it didn’t matter that the higher noise levels had existed for a number of years—what mattered was whether Yancey is currently in violation of the regulations, and Yancey’s own acoustical measurements have shown that they are.
“Our house was built in 1903,” said Hillsboro neighbor Tom Goeke at the PC meeting. “We don’t understand how Yancey can operate with complete disregard for neighbors. We feel that the county is charged to hold businesses accountable for complying with regulations and we’re counting on [the county] to do that, especially when it affects health and safety. The most pressing issue is noise … I welcome you to come sit on my front porch and experience it for yourself from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.”
The PC unanimously agreed on the set of approvals and denials of the special exceptions, and their report will serve to advise the Albemarle Board of Supervisors when they meet to make a final decision on the issue on July 15.