Residents Say Concrete Plant Jeopardizing Health, Tranquility

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An occupied slip at Cape Charles Harbor is seen with the concrete plant in the background. Photo by Jim Ritch.

By Stefanie Jackson – Citizens Concerned for Cape Charles advised the Cape Charles planning commission during a virtual meeting Feb. 2 that if the local concrete plant’s dust and noise issues are not addressed, the problems may continue or worsen as the business expands, potentially jeopardizing the future stability and growth of the town’s thriving tourism industry.

Originally called Bayshore Concrete, the plant was established in 1961 to produce concrete for construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which opened in 1964.

Bayshore Concrete closed in 2018 and was vacant for more than a year. The facility was purchased by a new owner in 2019 and renamed Coastal Precast Systems.

Since the concrete plant resumed operations, some Cape Charles residents say they have noticed increasing amounts of dust and noise pollution and other disturbances, such as the removal of dozens of trees near Coastal’s property line, deteriorating the view from the boardwalk of the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve.

They claim the concrete plant is creating more disturbances under its new ownership, Margaret Ballard, a member of the concerned citizens group, said in an email to a reporter.

The affected individuals are mostly residents of the Cape Charles Historic District and Bay Creek. They formed Citizens Concerned for Cape Charles (CCCC) and began meeting with Town Manager John Hozey in June 2020.

Through those meetings the group learned that Coastal Precast Systems has considered purchasing land adjacent to the existing concrete plant to expand its business. However, an expansion would require rezoning the additional parcels for heavy industry.

The Cape Charles planning commission held a public input session Tuesday night and read into the record several written comments that asked the planning commission to either prohibit the rezoning of the land or take other preventative action.

Dave Parham wrote that Cape Charles residents and visitors alike have experienced the “unacceptable dust and debris” from the concrete plant settling on their boats docked at the town harbor.

His son will no longer use the town harbor and “boaters who stopped in for a few days as they cruised the Chesapeake” also complained about the dust. “There is a good probability that most of them will not be back,” Parham said.

Dr. Elizabeth Sutphen noted that noise pollution can produce a laundry list of negative health consequences including “stress, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, productivity loss, communication difficulties, elevated blood pressure, (increased) heart rate, fatigue, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular disease, and changes in brain chemistry.”

The dust or “particulate air pollution caused by Precast Concrete Systems creates a threatening health environment,” she added.

Sutphen suggested the planning commission adopt a noise ordinance and implement “control measures” for concrete plant operations.

Bill Ballard was present at the online meeting and referred to a planning commission consultant’s report presented in March 1996, after Cape Charles had experienced “decades of decline.” The report recommended the town “adopt a focus of protection and preservation of existing properties and an emphasis on tourism as a means to reverse this decline and spur economic growth.”

That report became a “template” for actions such as the update of Cape Charles’ comprehensive plan, which “bore fruit,” resulting in increased revenues from real estate taxes and sales taxes and the proliferation of successful small businesses, Ballard said.

The dust and noise pollution generated by Coastal Precast continues to “adversely impact the lifestyles and livelihoods of those who live and work in Cape Charles,” he said.

Ballard suggested neither that the concrete plant should close nor that it should be prohibited from acquiring land and applying for rezoning to expand its business.

Rather, the company’s desire to expand should be used as a “bargaining chip” for implementing a plan to mitigate the dust and noise issues, Ballard said.

The concerned citizens group appreciates Coastal Precast as a significant source of local employment, and its leaders have exhibited a desire to be “good corporate neighbors, yet the job remains unfinished,” he said.

Mollie Pickron said the concrete plant’s operation should not jeopardize the economic growth Cape Charles has experienced within the last fiscal year despite the COVID-19 pandemic: a nearly 22% increase in transient occupancy taxes, about 2% more sales taxes, a nearly 98% increase in business license taxes, and nearly 62% more harbor dockages.

Concrete plant officials promised to build a wall to block the noise and the unappealing view of the facility, but plans have “stalled, and there’s no definitive timeline on completion,” Pickron said.

The concrete plant’s hours of operation also are at issue. “Neither tourists nor residents want to be awakened at 5 a.m. by the plant noise. Who wants to enjoy a cocktail outside at a local establishment overlooking the beautiful bay or at a backyard gathering and have to shout over the beeping and clashing of heavy equipment?” she asked.

If the concrete plant drives away Cape Charles residents and visitors, “our economic condition will certainly deteriorate and businesses will falter and close,” Pickron said.

The Cape Charles planning commissioners were not scheduled to take any action on the matter Feb. 2 but heard public comments as requested and engaged in discussion.

Town Planner and Zoning Administrator Allyson Finchum clarified that the land occupied by the concrete plant is zoned for heavy industry, not light industry as some of the public comments suggested.

Heavy industries are so called because they use heavy equipment to manufacture products generally purchased by other businesses, but light industries use smaller machines to create items often purchased by individual consumers.

Examples of light industry include the manufacture of parts and products used in photography, communications, computing, medicine, and household items.

Commissioner Diane D’Amico asked if the Town of Cape Charles Zoning Ordinance, Article III, Section 3.13 could be enforced.

She emphasized letter F, numbers 4 through 9, which prohibit:

  • outside storage of parts, materials, or fuel
  • outside manufacture, assembly, or servicing of either products used onsite or trucks used in transport
  • exterior lighting not directed away from residential areas
  • outside warning sounds such as those produced by loudspeakers, intercoms, paging systems, sirens, horns, bells, or whistles, except on half-ton trucks
  • release of dust, smoke, or noxious odors
  • delivery of materials or products before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and deliveries anytime Sunday, except on half-ton trucks

Finchum said she will consult the town attorneys to determine if those parts of the zoning ordinance can be enforced.

Chairman Bill Stramm noted that Coastal Precast Systems has not yet submitted an application to request the rezoning of any parcel.

Members of Citizens Concerned for Cape Charles also plan to speak at the next Cape Charles town council meeting Feb. 18.