Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (2024)

The future of an active stone quarry in Jessup is up in the air after an unfavorable zoning ruling, spurred by outcry from its neighbors.

Since 2005, the Savage Stone Quarry has mined a mineral called Baltimore gabbro, which is used for road beds, riprap and airport runways, by blasting apart chunks of rock in a large open pit, situated between Interstate 95 and Route 1.

But 19 years later, a collection of residents living close to the quarry say they’ve had enough. They believe that the quarry’s sometimes jarring explosions, which occur one to three times each week, are cracking their walls, foundations and driveways, and causing dust to accumulate on their homes, cars and outdoor furniture. And they believe they are owed compensation.

The quarry, though, argues that the cracks cannot be caused by its blasting, since the operation adheres to strict standards for the strength of its explosions. Quarry officials say they are careful to keep dust at bay, frequently misting the rocks with water while they’re harvested and placed into storage piles.

Maryland environmental inspectors have listed the site as compliant with air pollution and mining regulations during their most recent inspections. Reports noted one instance of a dust emission and one instance of runoff, but stated that, in both cases, the quarry installed equipment to fix the problems.

But in May, after more than 16 hours of testimony, a Howard County hearing examiner sided with the residents, ruling that the quarry had run afoul of its conditions with the county by causing a nuisance to residents, citing concerns about the blasting, dust and pollution impacts on a stream.

It was a stunning turn of events for quarry officials, who were accustomed to relatively painless zoning renewals every five years, said Randy Heckler, Maryland operations manager at Laurel Sand & Gravel, which runs Savage Stone and other quarries in Maryland and West Virginia.

The examiner’s ruling, revoking the “conditional use” that allowed mining on the quarry’s nearly 300-acre property, technically could have shuttered the operation. But the quarry has appealed the decision, triggering a new round of hearings in late August before an appeals board to determine the quarry’s future. From there, any challenges would hit the courts, beginning with the Howard County Circuit Court.

So far, the battle has ignited a common debate wherever industry and neighborhoods meet: How can balance be achieved between industrial activity and residents’ quality of life? Do environmental regulations do enough?

The quarry argues the vocal residents are up in arms despite the quarry’s largely complianttrack record with environmental regulators, and that some degree of disturbance is inherent to the operation.

“We’re trying to show them the regulations are in place to make sure that you are safe, that you are looked out for, being near a facility like this,” Heckler said. “That’s why the regulations exist.”

But residents like Andrew Rushton, led by the Pleasant Chase Homeowners Association, worry the blasting regulations fail to account for the cumulative effect of years of blasting.

Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (1)

“I am not of the position that one blast is going to topple over our home,” Rushton said. “But my concern is, cumulatively — week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade of these blastings — it’s like with a paperclip. When you bend a paperclip once, nothing happens. But you keep doing it and doing it, and guess what? Snap.”

Rushton purchased his home, which predates the quarry, in 2020 without any knowledge of the nearby quarry. Because the quarry blasts during the day on weekdays, Rushton didn’t feel them when he was working from an office. But that all changed during the coronavirus pandemic. From his desk at home, the blasts can be alarming, he said, likening them to “mini earthquakes.”

He began to notice thin cracks he hadn’t seen before: along the foundation of his home, on the staircase walls and on the kitchen ceiling. Rushton said he would have reached out to the quarry, hoping to get compensation. But he’d already heard from many of his neighbors: The quarry would bring an inspector to look at the damage, attribute it to something else, such as natural settling, and refuse to pay.

As part of its original agreement with community members, the quarry pledged to keep a $25,000 fund for reimbursing residents. To date, the quarry hasn’t issued any payments, arguing that none of the damage residents have noticed can be attributed to their mining, because its blasts occur within regulated levels.

“You can feel the vibration. But that doesn’t mean that it’s causing any damage to anyone,” said Andrew Pflaum, controller at Laurel Sand & Gravel. “We think the science proves that it’s physically impossible for us to be causing damage to these homes.”

During the Howard County hearing process, experts from two geological companies backed the quarry’s assertions.

In her May decision, Howard County Hearing Examiner Joyce B. Nichols argued the studies cited by the experts, including a 1984 U.S. Bureau of Mines study for which a home next to a coal mine was studied for two years, failed to account for the possible effects after 20 years of blasting, and that the data also failed to account for blasting’s psychological effects.

For Linda Smith-Barrett, a military veteran who purchased her home near the quarry in 2016, the blasts became particularly upsetting after she was injured in a 2022 shooting. Suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, Smith-Barrett finds the blasts so troubling, she tries to leave her home during the hours they’re expected.

“We should be able to live in our homes peacefully. This is supposed to be like my sanctuary, and it’s not,” she said.

Nichols ruled that the quarry failed to meaningfully investigate residents’ damage claims. Its refusal to reimburse any residents or provide an independent arbitrator for their claims is “operating in bad faith,” Nichols wrote.

Dust is one of resident Gary Prestianni’s largest concerns about living near the quarry, along with the cracks on his home’s exterior. Prestianni said he frequently wipes black dust from his picnic tables and his windows, and is concerned about dust particles in the air he breathes.

Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (2)

The quarry has been inspected by state air pollution officials 24 times in the last five years. During one inspection after a neighbor complaint, the Maryland Department of the Environment noticed dust coming from a particular piece of equipment, and Savage Stone added a hose to keep the dust down. In all other instances, MDE wrote that there were no emissions violations.

“While the quarry’s on-site operations may comply with its permit, Petitioner’s operations still created a nuisance to its neighbors,” Nichols wrote about the dust in her ruling.

Prestianni also reported a thick mucky gray runoff he found next to the quarry’s fence, while hiking in the woods that the quarry donated to the Howard County Conservancy.

Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (3)

Per MDE documents, after inspectors arrived and located the runoff, the quarry installed silt fencing to prevent it, and was instructed to leave the muck on the forest floor and avoid further disturbances to the area.

On a handful of occasions over the past several years, the water discharged into storage ponds from the quarry, and then into the stream, hasn’t met requirements for pH and solid particles, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s database presented at the hearing.

Heckler argues the company has taken action to prevent such exceedances in the future. And the quarry hasn’t received any fines or violation notices from MDE.

“When you have an issue, it’s about how you address it and what you do moving forward,” Heckler said. “Every time, we take corrective action. We take it seriously.”

Doug Myers, a senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who reviewed the exceedances and testified against the quarry, said that although they were not severe, and did not to compel MDE to action, they still could impact the ecosystem.

“Every time there’s a number larger than the permit limits, they may not enforce it. But it’s still a violation,” Myers said.

By failing to adhere to all environmental rules, the quarry violated its zoning conditions, Nichols ruled.

Some neighbors say they haven’t seen any ill effects on their homes from the explosions, and call Savage Stone a valued neighbor, including Becky McKirahan, who serves as treasurer of the Ridgely’s Run Community Center along Mission Road.

As part of an agreement with the community, before the quarry began operating, it pledged to construct the community center, and donate a share of its revenue every three months to the upkeep of the center, which hosts community events.

Without the quarry’s financial support, it’s unlikely the center could remain open, McKirahan said.

In recent years, keeping the community center afloat has been harder. In 2021, former board member Paul Wayne Wharton was convicted of stealing more than $100,000 from the center’s coffers. He was ordered to repay the center, and serve prison time, but the center hasn’t been fully repaid yet, McKirahan said.

“The quarry was very supportive when that all came out,” McKirahan said. “They were like: ‘You let us know what you need.'”

McKirahan said she was surprised to hear residents’ concerns during the quarry’s hearing process. She advocated for a new high school to be built on land formerly owned by the quarry,adjacent to the mining operation. Guilford Park High School opened last year.

Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (4)

An elementary school also is planned for some of the quarry’s acreage, quarry officials told The Baltimore Sun.

But for some residents, the schoolconstruction on the quarry’s land is evidence that the county needs to appease the quarry to get what it desperately needs: more developable land for its growing population. In 2019, as part of the agreement to obtain the land for the high school, the county agreed not to change the zoning on the quarry’s land for 25 years.

That agreement would not stop the appeals board from ruling against the quarry in August, said Safa Hira, spokesperson for County Executive Calvin Ball.

Heckler said the quarry, which has about 50 full-time employees, has plans to keep operating for years.

“There’s not a written-in-pen plan right now,” he said. “Our job is to try to make sure that we’re still here to support the area. Because if it ain’t us pumping out 2-plus million tons of stone, that’s a hundred and some odd trucks that are going to run right through here, from somewhere else.”

The next closest quarries would be in Rockville, the Texas Quarry in co*ckeysville or in Harford County’s Churchville, Heckler said.

“The stone demand is still there regardless of us,” Pflaum said. “It’s going to come from somewhere.”

Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (5)
Howard County stone quarry fights zoning denial fueled by complaints from residents nearby (2024)
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