Post #526: Our assets become our liabilities, part 4: Beulah Road Park Industrial Zone

Posted on February 13, 2020

File this one under “aren’t you glad you don’t live there”.  Or maybe under “don’t get in the way of the Town bureaucracy.”  But certainly under “nobody else does this, and hey, I bet there’s a reason for that.”

First, walk a mile in their shoes.

Suppose you’d lived in a home in Vienna since the 1960s.  Or bought one of our many ’60’s-era houses.  Like the one pictured above.  It’s in a nice, quiet neighborhood with mature shade trees.  And all the land for half-a-mile in every direction is zone RS-12.5, for single-family houses on modest lots.

But there’s a problem.  There’s a large piece of vacant property abutting your back yard.  Historically, some Town of Vienna documents marked that tract as park land.  So you may have been foolish enough to consider that vacant land a real asset in your neighborhood.

Then, surprise:  An industrial waste processing facility moves in and takes over that lot.  This facility runs noisy machinery for hours a day.  At various time of the year, streams of diesel dump trucks move onto and off of the property, unloading and loading the materials to be recycled.  In years past, the property was littered with construction debris, until you complained to the Town about it.  And the recycling operation generates large mounds of pungent rotting organic matter.

Well, complain to the Town, you might say.  Nobody has the right to operate an industrial facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Nice thought.  Except that it’s the Town’s industrial facility.  Welcome to what the Town of Vienna refers to as the Beulah Road Mulch Yard.

While it’s (almost) inconceivable that the Town would grant someone else the right to use property in that location that way, the Town granted itself a conditional use permit for that mulching operation back in 2004.  You can read some of the contemporary press coverage in this link, or this link, and by following the links at the bottom of those stories.

Member of the Northeast Vienna Citizens’ Association (NEVCA) did their research on this when the issue first came up in 2003.  That’s the year the Town bought a large (and loud) tub grinder for grinding up leaves, and roughly the time the Town moved mulching operations to the current site.  Here’s their timeline for how that property was classified and used by the Town of Vienna, from the November 2003 NEVCA Notes:

Source:  NEVCA Notes, November 2003.

Why bring this up now?

OK, so that neighborhood took a beating in 2004, and has been taking that beating ever since.  Why bring that old news up now?

You may or may not recall that the Town bought a house on Beulah Road, back in 2018.  The house was directly adjacent to the Town’s Beulah Road property.  And, at the time, the official line of the Town government was that they bought it with no purpose in mind.  Even at the time, that was pretty clearly a prevarication.  That was almost surely bought with the construction of the new police station in mind, as I documented in this post, with a link to a news article by Brian Trompeter.

The Town just recently moved to reclassify that small parcel of land on which that house sites as land for “government use”, in the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.  That zoning — for government use — is not something you can see on the Town’s zoning map.  (We don’t have a zone for that.)  It’s only something that exists as a land use category in the Town’s strategic plan.

But apparently that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  Exactly what the whole story is, it’s kind of hard to tell.  But that building and the Beulah Road property will now be used as part of the building of the new police station.  As I understand it, the Town needs somewhere to park the fleet of 20-some police vehicles, and apparently that unimproved Beulah Road property is the place they’ve chosen to do that?  Tough to say, as all I am running on at this point is rumors.

The point is, this has opened up an old wound for residents of this neighborhood.  It’s not enough to have the Town’s leaf mulching facility in their back yards.  Now, in addition, that’s going to become parking for the police fleet? which I would guess entails some use of sirens at some point?  And so, graveling or paving enough of that lot to allow for such parking?  And, maybe, as in the past, storage of the odd bit of construction debris and such, as the Town apparently did when it redid the sidewalks along Maple?

Who knows?  And that’s pretty much the point.  At one point, the Town apparently considered that to be a neighborhood park.  But over the  years, they have slowly peeled back part of the tree cover as they turned it to various other uses.  The Town turned a deaf ear to the residents of that neighborhood when it decided to use as more-or-less an industrial site, mulching all of Vienna’s fall leaf litter there.  And now, in addition, it’s to become a police vehicle parking lot, and it’s not clear what else.

If I lived there, given the history, I’d be a little worried too.  Makes my problem with cut-through traffic from 444 Maple West seem like small potatoes.

Does anyone else do this?

This, being, get their fall leaf litter converted to mulch or otherwise disposed of?  This turns out to be a fairly difficult question to answer.  But near as I can tell, nobody in this area runs an industrial-scale leaf mulching operation in the middle of a residential area.  Except the Town of Vienna.

City of Alexandria.  They maintain a leaf mulch site at 4215 Eisenhower Avenue.  This is in an industrial area, adjacent to (e.g.) self-storage facilities, ball fields, and similar.

Fairfax County:  From the look of it, my guess is that Fairfax does its mulching (for this part of the county) at the Ox Road solid waste transfer facility.  That’s in the heart of a large industrial/governmental use area.  But I could not find documentation to prove that.

Town of Herndon.  Some earlier work by NEVCA suggests that Herndon does not perform these operations within its Town limits, but I could not verify that (on-line) using current information.  (Historically, they filled roll-off containers with leaves, then trucked those out for composting.)  Herndon also does not appear to offer free mulch to residents (as Vienna does).  Presumably, Herndon residents would have to rely on Fairfax County free mulch.

City of Fairfax:  Fairfax City directs residents to the County’s free mulch, which suggests (but does not prove) that Fairfax City doesn’t do its own mulching.

City of Falls Church.  They offer residents free locally-produced leaf mulch, but provide no clue on their website as to where they produce that mulch.


Is this a good use of scarce land?

Fairfax County currently values that 8-acre tract at about $2.5M, but it’s not clear what, exactly, that valuation reflects.  Certainly not the value of the land for use as housing.  But that’s roughly the same value that Fairfax puts on the 11-acre Glyndon Street park.

Putting aside the impact on the neighbors, it seems to me like running a mulch pile is a fairly low-valued use of a scarce resource such as Town of Vienna land.  You have to wonder if this practice started back in the days before Fairfax County itself became so invested in recycling.  I can’t help but wonder what it would cost the Town to turn that tract of land into another useful Town park, instead of using it for what amounts to refuse collection (and, going forward, vehicle parking).

Finally, I should make it clear that a) as a homeowner, you don’t have to participate in the Town’s leaf mulching operation and b) current environmental thinking actually discourages you from doing that.  The point being that the heat generated by mulching on an industrial scale kills off eggs of beneficial insects that might otherwise overwinter on your leaf mulch, such as various species of butterflies.  If you have the room and the inclination, mulching your own leaves probably makes more environmental sense than having the Town mulch them for you.