Blast zone: Belmont residents perturbed about subdivision rock clearing

The developer of a new Belmont subdivision has requested a permit for 48 blasts to excavate rock starting in July and going through August. staff photo The developer of a new Belmont subdivision has requested a permit for 48 blasts to excavate rock starting in July and going through August. staff photo

Quarry Road runs along Belmont’s southern border by Quarry Park, across from where Belmont Point will be built. Monikers of nearby Rockland and Stonehenge avenues also suggest there’s a lot of rocky ground in the vicinity. And when some of the neighbors got notices from a survey company that blasting would take place to excavate rock for the subdivision, alarm bells went off.

Former mayor and Druid Avenue resident Tom Vandever was “shocked to learn” about the blasting when Seismic Surveys knocked on his door a couple of weeks ago. The developer “kind of sprung it on us,” he says. “They’ve been doing some serious excavation and must have hit some serious rock.”

According to Charlottesville Tomorrow, Andrew Baldwin, now with Core Real Estate and Development, got a rezoning and critical slopes waiver for the planned unit development of 26 homes in 2013 on a 3-2 City Council vote. Baldwin had not returned a call from C-VILLE at press time.

Vandever calls Belmont Point the “PUD from hell.”

Seismic Surveys wanted to do a pre-blast photographic survey, and Vandever says when he asked for a copy of the information, he was told he couldn’t get it.

Other residents within 500 feet of the blast area say they haven’t been notified at all about the upcoming blasting in their backyards. “The first we heard about it was Tuesday,” says Palatine Avenue resident James Kelley.

The notice “is not addressed to anyone, and it’s not signed,” says resident Karen Katz, who wants the permit delayed and public forums held.

Hurt Construction hired Douglas Explosives to do 48 blasts starting in July and going through August, according to an email Katz gave C-VILLE from Fire Marshal Jay Davis, who will issue the permit. Davis says blasting is preferable to a hydraulic hammer, which would take six months and produce noise and rock dust.

Kelley and Katz aren’t convinced about that. “Blasting causes more risk to adjacent properties,” says Kelley. He points out that some of the houses in Belmont were built between the 1930s and 1960s and their foundations, many of them cinder block, were not built to current standards. “They’re more susceptible to vibrations and explosions,” he says.

Some of Belmont Point’s neighbors are within 300 feet of where rock will be excavated via explosion. staff photo

Parts of the neighborhood also have 80-year-old terra cotta clay pipes that are “fragile as it is and more susceptible to blasting,” Kelley says. “A collapse would not be known for a long time.”

Southern Development will buy the lots and will build the houses, but isn’t doing the site preparation, says its president, Charlie Armstrong.

“We aren’t making decisions on how the rock excavation happens, but in my experience, blasting is a much smarter choice than months of rock hammering,” says Armstrong. “It can be done very safely by professionals who do that every day.”

In 2013, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport’s runway expansion project required blasting and caused widespread damage in neighboring Walnut Hills.

Douglas Explosives did phase one of that project, which was done “meticulously and safely,” says Douglas president Rick Burnsworth, but the company didn’t do phase two, which caused the damage, he says.

Burnsworth has been in the blasting business for 41 years, and says, “We’re 100 percent abiding by federal and state regulations.”

However, Katz says Virginia code requires notification of those within a half mile—2,640 feet—of the blast zone and the sharing of survey information with residents.

Burnsworth describes the noise from the blasts as more of a poof than a boom. “Most of the time you wouldn’t know it happened,” he says. The blasts create a “minimal amount of dust” that “dissipates straight up.”

“We’ve gone on the campus of UVA and worked within 30 feet of buildings,” says Burnsworth. “We’re not there to destroy.” And he says the company has had no problems with any of the communities it’s worked with in seven states.

That’s unlikely to dispel the concerns of residents, many of whom appeared before City Council June 18. Right now, public hearings are not part of the blast permit process, and Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson said she could draft an ordinance that would make it so for the July 2 council agenda.

Fire Marshal Davis was at the meeting, and he said the size of the rock to be excavated is “unprecedented” and that there’s a lot of research to be done before a permit can be issued.

Some of the houses are within 300 feet of the blast zone, which is uncomfortably close for the residents. Says Vandever, “I can throw a rock from my backyard and hit whoever set the charge.”

Correction: Stonehenge Park LLC owns the Belmont Point property, not Southern Development.

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