Some rural Maryland residents complaining of being overburdened with polluting industrial activity in their midst recently won a skirmish in their fight for relief. But their struggle is far from over.
On Dec. 6, an Anne Arundel County hearing officer rescinded a special zoning exception granted 55 years ago for Westport Reclamation to mine sand and gravel and to produce concrete in the Lothian area of the county.
Westport Reclamation is one of several industrial-scale operations along a short stretch of Sands Road paralleling the Patuxent River. Among the other operations are a large sand and gravel mine, two former quarries undergoing reclamation and two rubble landfills, now closed.
Although the area is zoned for rural agricultural land use, sand and gravel mining is allowed with a “special exception” to the zoning code. Residents have complained for years, though, about the concentration of mining and waste disposal activities in their neighborhood. They contend that 75–100 heavy trucks use their narrow, two-lane road daily, filling the air with diesel fumes and threatening the safety of children at play and other drivers.
The complaining residents say theirs is a fight for environmental justice. The percentage of African Americans living near the facilities is greater than it is countywide, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
Tracy Garrett, a longtime resident who lives near Westport Reclamation, and Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman filed a petition in July asking the county to revoke or modify Westport Reclamation’s special exception, arguing that the mining is no longer taking place.
Though the old quarry is undergoing reclamation now, the property is also used for unpermitted activities, they say, including the acceptance of construction debris and resale of soil for use in composting. They contend that at a minimum, the company should have to reapply for permission to continue the reclamation and any other activities not specifically authorized 55 years ago.
After hearing from both sides in October, administrative hearing officer Douglas Clark Hollman found that little if any mining is occurring at the site, which has since become a base for what he called “commercial purposes.” He cited evidence that the property was being used as a contractor’s yard and for storing unregistered vehicles and dumping debris.
Belle Grove Corp., the owner of Westport Reclamation, has insisted that its operation there complies with all relevant local and state requirements. But Hollman noted that the county adopted new rules for commercial operations in rural areas after the company was awarded its special exception. He likened the company’s position to that of an “automobile owner saying they are not subject to the emissions laws because they got the plates for their car in 1967.”
Celestine Brown, another area resident, called the ruling long overdue.
“It is unimaginable this organization has been allowed to operate under a ruling 50 years ago while changing the methods of operation without new approvals,” she said. “Finally, the citizens of Lothian [and] Harwood are being heard.”
The hearing officer’s ruling comes after the company settled a lawsuit the county had filed against it earlier this year alleging that it was conducting business at the site that was not permitted under its special exception. The company agreed to pay a $3,000 penalty, remove any unregistered vehicles and cease using the site as a contractor’s yard. But the District Court also declared that soil composting and concrete recycling are allowed under the special exception.
The residents, who had pressed the county to act, want more: an end to the decades-long parade of trucks.
Tutman said that even with the hearing officer’s decision to revoke the special exception, he expects the county would grant the company a new one to continue reclamation of the old quarry. But he noted that it would then have to comply with current standards for controlling storm-water runoff, among other things.
The process of considering a new special exception also could give residents a voice, Tutman noted, in setting the conditions under which the county would allow work there to proceed.
But Anthony Gorski, Belle Grove’s lawyer, said the company plans to appeal the hearing officer’s decision to the county’s Board of Appeals.
Getting the county to award a new special exception is a lengthy process, he said, and if the ruling stands, Westport would have to shut down in the interim. Gorski contends that Hollman erred and that the company is not legally required to seek new permission to continue operations.
Meanwhile, trucks continue to roll in and out of Westport Reclamation. Lori Rhodes, deputy Anne Arundel County administrator for land use, said the county is not obligated to carry out the hearing officer’s ruling “until the property owner has exhausted all administrative remedies,” including going to court if the Board of Appeals does not reverse it.
Tracy Garrett, one of the two petitioners, expressed dismay at the county’s decision not to act promptly on the hearing officer’s shutdown order, even though an appeal has yet to be filed.
“That is a slap in the face and punch in the gut,” she said in an email, adding that it “feels like once again Westport has more rights than the residents of Sands Road.”