Fun fact: All of the crushed granite used to build the new Triangle Expressway in Western Wake County came from the RDU Quarry in North Raleigh owned by Martin Marietta Materials.
The not-so-fun fact, as far as the residents of the neighboring Wyngate subdivision are concerned: Martin Marietta is looking to expand the quarry and dump the "overburden"—the dirt and loose rocks it takes off the top of the granite—on a nearly 100-acre tract across Ebenezer Church Road, near the entrance to Wyngate.
The dump site would be set back from the road at least 230 feet and be hidden from view by a berm up to 80 feet high, says Lacy Reaves, the lawyer representing Martin Marietta.
"Berm?" scoffs Ben Kuhn, Wyngate's lawyer. "There's no berm. This is one big pile of overburden. It isn't screening the dirt. It is the dirt."
Martin Marietta's plans hinge on a rezoning application now under consideration by the Raleigh Planning Commission. City Council will make a final decision, probably within a few weeks.
This is the second and most recent quarry rezoning case in North Raleigh. A year ago, Hanson Aggregates Southeast tried to expand its existing Crabtree Quarry, which sits in the heart of North Raleigh between Duraleigh Road and Ebenezer Church Road. But after months of struggle it withdrew its bid in the face of overwhelming opposition from neighbors.
In both cases, the quarries were there before the neighborhoods were built. Otherwise, though, the cases differ in some major ways.
Hanson tried to add about 100 acres to its quarry by purchasing land from the developer of one of the many subdivisions that sprouted around the quarry over the past three decades. The land purchase was contingent on the rezoning, so it didn't happen.
Martin Marietta, on the other hand, already owns the land it wants to use for a small expansion of its existing quarry but a big expanse of added dumpsite. The existing 200-acre quarry, which lies to the south of I-540 in a sparsely developed area, would grow by just eight acres. But 97 additional acres, currently zoned for houses or commercial buildings—but not for industrial or quarry purposes—would be rezoned as a quarry dumping ground on the north side of Westgate Road.
It would be across from Wyngate, in other words, and way too close for Wyngate resident Fred West.
West, a retired educator and a member of Wyngate's Homeowners Association (HOA), says the rezoning application fails the public benefits test. "There's an old expression we use in education called value-added," he says. "Here, the value-added is all on the corporate side. All the impacts on the public side are negative."
It's true, as Raleigh Assistant City Attorney Ira Berkowitz reminded the planning commission when it took up the RDU Quarry case two weeks ago, that Martin Marietta must show that a rezoning will be in the public's best interest as well as theirs.
A major benefit of the quarry, according to Paxton Badham, a Martin Marietta vice president, is that it contains a ready supply of high-quality aggregate material for local road construction without the expense of trucking it in from elsewhere. But while there's a lot of rock left in the quarry, Badham told the commission, "We're running out of places to put the overburden" on the existing 200-acre site.
What Martin Marietta proposes is to extend the quarry a bit to the north—the added eight acres—which would "round off" the existing football-shaped pit, making it easier to dig deeper, Badham said.
And even though the quarry would expand, it would still be contained on the south side of Westgate Road, he added. How? By moving the road.
Badham said his company wants to pay for a new Westgate Road, curving it about 600 feet to the north of the existing road to make room for the slightly larger quarry. (The state Department of Transportation would have to approve. If it didn't, the added eight acres would go away.)
Then Martin Marietta would build a tunnel under the realigned roadway so its trucks could deliver the overburden from the quarry to the 97-acre dumpsite without being seen on Westgate or Ebenezer Church Road.
Well, so far so good, Wyngate residents say. But what about the blasting? What about noxious particulates drifting over to Wyngate from the top of the dumpsite? What about the potential, when it rains, for runoff from the dump into Sycamore Creek, a tributary to Crabtree Creek and the Neuse River that cuts across the 97 acres?
And what about their biggest issue, which is the effect on their property values if the land across the road, which is supposed to be nice houses, apartments and stores, turns into a giant mountain of dirt?
"If this rezoning request is approved, every homeowner in the Wyngate community will be asked about the negative impact of a working rock quarry in such close proximity by prospective homebuyers," a white paper issued by the Wyngate HOA says. "Would you want to buy ... where your personal safety could be at-risk due to a working mining quarry operation?"
The report of the Raleigh Planning and Economic Development Department staff on these points is sketchy. The rezoning clearly doesn't comply with the city's comprehensive plan, which calls for medium-density residential and commercial space on this tract. The air and water quality issues and potential impacts of the blasting must be "further evaluated," it says. But that job belongs to state and federal environmental and mining regulators, not city planning staffers.
The blasting issue, in particular, stalled negotiations between Martin Marietta and the Wyngate HOA, both sides said.
Badham said federal Bureau of Mines standards, which most states, including North Carolina, follow, limit the noise and vibration levels of quarry blasts near houses. He said Martin Marietta is willing to certify—and install a seismograph at the entrance to Wyngate to measure—that 90 percent of its blasts would result in 30 percent or less of allowable vibration; 92 percent of its blasts would be at or below 44 percent of allowable noise.
The neighborhoods wanted tougher rules, which Martin Marietta couldn't promise, Badham said. He added that the company investigates any blast producing more than 25 percent of allowable vibration, and "it's never as bad as 50 percent."
"I'm not saying they're not going to feel it. They will feel it," Badham said. But he argued that the blasts are infrequent—about once a week at most—and are "unexciting" even up close—"little more than just a pop and a rollover."
When the Indy asked to visit the quarry, Badham said it's currently not operating because of the down economy; in general, it is off-limits to visitors for safety reasons. No blasting is scheduled there any time soon.
Unlike Hanson, which is a subsidiary of a German firm, Martin Martin Materials is the latest incarnation of a Raleigh-based business with headquarters on Wycliff Road that began as Superior Stone in 1939 and has grown rapidly since.
Over the next half-century, it merged with an aerospace firm (Lockheed Martin), but later split from it. Free-standing as a publicly traded corporation since 1996, Martin Marietta Materials is the nation's second-largest producer of construction aggregates, with 260 quarries in the U.S. and abroad and net sales in 2011 of $1.5 billion, according to its website.
When the planning commission discussed the case, it seemed to be divided, with more members looking for reasons to approve the Raleigh company's rezoning than reject it. But when questions started to pile up about such details as hours of operation and the proximity of blasts to Wyngate, a vote was postponed until June 12 or later.
According to Reaves and Badham, blasts at the quarry are closer to Wyngate now—the closest are within 550 feet—than any blasts from the added eight acres will be.
West, though, points out that the new blasting, even if slightly farther away, will occur on the mine surface, not 1,000 feet down in the pit. "Surface blasting is much worse, and the cloud of particulates doesn't stay in the pit. It's in the sky."
Wyngate residents also point out that the current zoning on the 97 acres is the result of Martin Marietta's own application in 1999, when the company and the Wyngate HOA struck a deal about what would be best for the area. At the time, both sides agreed the ideal use was housing and stores, and the company didn't need the land for the quarry or a dump.
Now, with the housing and commercial markets in the dump, MMA has obviously changed its mind.