Photo by James BunoanFrom their spacious Orange Park Acres home, Mark and Hilarie Moore have an unparalleled view of a giant pile of rock dust and gravel. Just a few dozen yards from their home, that pile is the business end of the Hanson Aggregates rock-crushing operation, located on the old Sully-Miller gravel mining site.
Hanson, which bought out Sully-Miller in 1992, hauls in thousands of tons of concrete and asphalt saturated with oil, tar and who knows what else to the site every year for recycling into usable gravel. The Moores say the operation's "continuous stream of fine dust" has caused numerous health problems for them and their two children since they moved to Orange six years ago.
"We have been treating [the children] for respiratory problems nearly nonstop," said Mark Moore, whose complaints have been on file with the city of Orange since October. "My son missed an entire month of school last year due to the problem. My daughter is currently on a daily program of steroids, bronchial expanders and respirators to combat the ongoing problem."
Moore says both he and his wife have experienced pneumonia several times in the past six years, though they never experienced respiratory problems before moving to Orange. Moore says the recycling has cost his family thousands of dollars in medical bills, clogged air-conditioning filters, caused them to lose sleep, and provided a steady soundtrack of harsh quarry noise and truck traffic that begins at dawn nearly every day.
Moore and his family have battled Hanson for years without success because the city never acted on his complaints. Now, at last, the Moores and their neighbors may finally breathe easier: after approximately 15 years of recycling, city officials have suddenly—finally—determined the operation is illegal. The city council will vote on shutting down the operation on Jan. 14.
The city's zoning code for surface sand and gravel mining makes clear that recycling processed materials such as concrete is permissible only when sand and gravel mining is also taking place onsite. Since there is no mining on the Sully-Miller site—and there hasn't been for years—Hanson can't crush imported rock.
"Staff has determined that the concrete-recycling operation is an illegal land use because it involves the processing of materials not extracted from the site," wrote senior Orange planner Christopher Carnes—in a Feb. 20, 2002, memo to community development director Alice Angus. Carnes added that a personal visit to the Sully-Miller site by him and a code-enforcement officer determined that there was also "illegal dumping" of green waste—grass clippings and other lawn waste—despite company assurances back in 2000 to shut that down as well.
But the rock crushing goes on.
Clearly, city officials have been completely asleep where Hanson Aggregates is concerned, allowing the company to carry out illegal gravel recycling for well more than a decade.
"As far as code enforcement is concerned, we only act on a complaint basis," explains Angus.
And even then, action occurs at a glacial pace.
Orange resident and former county planning commissioner Shirley Grindle filed a complaint in January 2002. She had discovered the illegal operation while researching a proposed housing development for the Sully-Miller site.
Code Enforcement then sent a "notice of violation" letter to Hanson on March 4, 2002. The company appealed. Then Angus sent the company a letter on July 15, ordering them to shut down. Once again, they appealed. On Oct. 7, the Orange Planning Commission voted 4-0 with one abstention to shut down the Hanson operation, but the company once again appealed. Finally, on Dec. 10, the City Council took up the issue. We think. Maybe.
In fact, Hanson attorney Barry Ross has used the city's own inaction against it. He argued at numerous city hearings and in correspondence that mining ended at the site in 1985 and that the city had not made a peep for 17 years. Tom Davis, Hanson's environmental consultant, has said that "extraction has not taken place since approximately 1975" and Orange did nothing. The city's reply? An Orange Planning Commission staff report states mining stopped in 1996, meaning the city isn't arguing whether it did nothing to stop an illegal operation—just how long it didn't do it.
Actually, no one at the city really knows when mining at Sully-Miller ended and recycling continued as the sole use of the site.
"The most definitive date we have from the company says extraction stopped in 1985," Angus said, chuckling. "But that's different from other dates they've provided. We're still trying to pin that down."
That won't be easy.
Throughout the affair, the only clear statement Hanson has made is that they want to continue crushing other people's concrete. They say they've recycled rock for years. They say the effects of mining and recycling are identical. They say an order to halt would be a "taking"—an oppressive condemnation by the city requiring compensation. They say their operation "provides an important service to the city and the surrounding area."
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The Orange city attorney's office found all of those excuses either irrelevant or baseless. But near the end of the Dec. 10 meeting, Hanson attorney Ross came up with a new excuse: the recycling started before the Sully-Miller site was annexed by the city and is still grandfathered under county zoning.
Because Orange City Attorney David De Berry couldn't say when the city annexed the Sully-Miller site or whether Ross' case was legit, the council delayed the matter until Jan. 14. But Angus subsequently destroyed that argument, too, by saying annexation took place long before the city's mining zoning code took effect.
"It's a shame so many years have gone by," said Grindle during the Dec. 10 hearing. "It hasn't been out of sight, but apparently, it's been out of mind for the city. The city needs to be more proactive in enforcing the zoning code. Either shut it down or change the zoning code. But don't allow an illegal use to continue."
Problems with Sully-Miller aren't limited to illegal rock crushing. Fieldstone Homes is planning to build 180 or so homes on the site. Not only would these homes sit in the inundation zones for two nearby earthen dams, but they also sit in the natural path of Santiago Creek. It's also now clear, thanks again to Grindle's research, that Sully-Miller never cleaned up its mining site, despite a state law requiring reclamation plans for all surface-mining operations. State officials say they are currently investigating why Orange never requested a reclamation plan for Sully-Miller.