By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday night to approve a major special-use permit for landscaping contractor Gary Wagner to expand part of his business near Eastville, a borrow pit – an excavation site for digging out sand, gravel, or clay to be used as fill at a construction site.
The vote was 4-1, with District 3 Supervisor Oliver Bennett opposed. He was concerned about safety issues and other possible impacts to neighboring homes on Simpkins Drive.
Wagner previously was permitted to expand the borrow pit from about 10 acres to 18 acres in 2018. The new expansion would increase the borrow pit area to more than 50 acres.
Wagner introduced himself and his wife, Julie Wagner, as farmers who moved to the Eastern Shore about 40 years ago. He explained the history of their sand-mining enterprise and how it grew out of their first business, Appleseed Nurseries.
Material from Wagner’s open-pit sand mine has been used as fill for major construction projects in Northampton County, including the new YMCA near Cape Charles and Dollar General in Eastville.
The Northampton County Planning Commission had recommended approval of the SUP with a long list of conditions, but Wagner disagreed with several of them.
Planning Commissioner Janet Sturgis explained why the conditions were made and advocated for Simpkins residents.
She noted that the Wagner borrow pit had begun as a five-acre area in 2004. After the latest expansion, the permit area will be about 10 times its original size.
“This is right in the middle of a community,” and not every resident received notification of the project, she said. Wagner proposed an expansion, not a new project; therefore notification was made only to owners of adjacent property within 1,000 feet of the original permit area.
Sturgis said seven shallow wells near the Wagner property had been replaced in the last 10 years. The failure of shallow wells near the pit was “not unexpected,” geologist Britt McMillan said in a Sept. 23 email to Sturgis.
Furthermore, the permit area is directly above the Eastville paleochannel, a circumstance that is “uncharted territory,” she said, addressing Supervisor John Coker, who is also on the Eastern Shore of Virginia Ground Water Committee. (A paleochannel is an inactive river or stream channel that has been filled or buried by sediment.)
But Coker objected to Sturgis’ speculation that digging into the ground above a paleochannel could have unwanted “repercussions.”
“I’ve sat in those groundwater meetings for over three-and-a-half years, and I know that they don’t understand anything about paleochannels … so don’t tell me about paleochannels,” he said.
Before voting on the SUP, supervisors amended the planning commission’s conditions that were deemed too restrictive.
They agreed with Wagner’s suggestion that he should be required to replace failed wells in the immediate area only if it can be proven that the failures were caused by borrow pit operations and no other reason.
Wagner had disapproved of the condition that his 11-acre parcel, tax map number 68-A-115, should be used only to access his 40-acre parcel numbered 68-A-135. He wanted permission also to use parcel 68-A-115 for storage, which supervisors granted.
Furthermore, Wagner preferred not to use parcel 68-A-115 to access the new borrow pit area because it would mean heavy trucks would frequently pass by homes on Simpkins Drive.
Wagner’s business is located south of Eastville, near the corner of Route 13 and Simpkins Drive. The parcel on which the nursery and borrow pit are situated is generally bordered by Route 13 on the west, the railroad on the east, and Simpkins Drive to the south.
There is a road behind the nursery that leads to the borrow pit. If the road could be extended through the existing borrow pit area and cross the railroad tracks north of Simpkins Drive, trucks would not have to pass through the residential community to access the new borrow pit.
However, Wagner first needs permission from Canonie-Atlantic, the private company that owns the railroad, to cross the railroad right-of-way at that point (which was noted in the planning commission’s recommendation).
Wagner believes the Canonie-Atlantic board will agree to his request, but he could not guarantee Tuesday night that its members will decide in his favor.
Wherever the road is built to access the borrow pit, it will need to be 25 feet wide to accommodate two passing trucks; the planning commission had called for a 15-foot-wide road. Supervisors agreed to amend the proposal to state the road must be “a minimum of” 15 feet wide.
They also agreed to delete a condition that would have limited trucks to 25 daily round trips on the road.
Wagner disagreed with the planning commission’s recommendation for a 100-foot-wide, opaque vegetative buffer on all sides of the new borrow pit area. Wagner agreed to put a 100-foot-wide buffer on the west, along the railroad right-of-way, where a public bike trail is expected to be built. However, Wagner’s neighbors who own the adjacent parcels agreed a 50-foot-wide buffer on the other sides would be sufficient, and supervisors agreed.
Wagner also questioned the planning commission’s condition that the railroad right-of-way must be bordered by a six-foot-high berm (a long, narrow mound of soil, usually covered by grass or other vegetation) that would act as a wall blocking the view of the mining operations from the bike path. Supervisors specified that if a berm is required, its height should be six feet above the existing grade, not six feet above the railbed, which is already raised.
The planning commission had proposed operating hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, with no operations on Sundays. Wagner preferred to retain the current operating hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, to make use of longer periods of daylight in the summer; the supervisors agreed to make that change.
They also deleted items that were deemed redundant, such as a requirement to produce certified mail receipts for letters notifying adjacent property owners within 1,000 feet of the boundary of the permit area. Wagner noted his proposal had been publicly advertised on multiple occasions.
Supervisor Bennett appeared disappointed that Wagner was not willing to include additional safety measures in the project, recalling a time when a local boy had drowned in a pond that was not enclosed by a fence.
Wagner said building a fence around his ponds would be “cost prohibitive” and that a determined child could simply climb over a fence. He did not dispute Bennett’s story but asserted that such an incident would be uncommon, an “anomaly.”
Bennett, who said he did not want to let down his constituents, cast the only vote against the SUP.
Wagner may proceed with the expansion of his sand-mining operation after receiving approvals from the Virginia Department of Energy, formerly the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, and any other related regulatory agencies.