When Matthew Alvarez bought his lot in Raleigh's upscale new development, The Hamptons at Umstead, he knew that Hanson Aggregates operated a granite quarry a few hundred yards away.
He expected a little noise, but the Alvarezes still built their dream home there, close to their workplaces, across the street from Umstead Park—perfect for their three young daughters.
Alvarez purchased his lot in December 2008, and he didn't know that months later the Hamptons developers would offer the mining company the chance to buy 100 acres of the development valued at $12 million to expand the quarry operation.
Now Alvarez has created blockthequarry.org, a website that details and promotes community opposition to the quarry expansion. In just a few weeks, 825 people, including neighbors and nearby office park owners, have signed an online petition in opposition, and "Say No" campaign signs are beginning to show up in front yards.
Company supporters, however, point out that the quarry was there first. The pit was crafted in the 1940s, before the land was annexed to Raleigh.
Hanson Aggregates Southeast, owned by German-based HeidelbegCement, is also offering incentives to get its expansion approved. The company promises to drop a long-standing lawsuit against the city, construct a vital greenway connection and offer the existing pit for flood control—all this if city officials will allow the company to rezone the Hamptons property from residential to industrial and allow mining.
City Councilman Bonner Gaylord, the representative for this western Raleigh district, says he's getting calls and e-mails from citizens arguing both sides. "It's tough," Gaylord says, "because there are some significant potential benefits to the City of Raleigh, but obviously there's some significant potential negative impacts to local property owners."
This isn't the first time Hanson has tried to expand its Crabtree Quarry operation. Hanson and the companies that owned the quarry previously have tried since 1982 to expand the operation to the south of Crabtree Creek. They got approval from state mining regulators, but the Raleigh City Council has never approved the rezoning request.
In 2002, Hanson allowed a contractor to remove dirt from the south side of the quarry. The city said that met the definition of mining and ordered the company to stop. That resulted in a lengthy, still-ongoing legal battle. Now Hanson is willing to drop the lawsuit and give up any rights to mine in the south if it can expand west.
The Umstead Coalition, a nonprofit group that supports the park, has strongly opposed expansion south for two decades. The group says operations there would prevent a greenway from being built, as it would have to pass near an active quarry site. "Their argument that they should expand west so they don't have to expand south in our mind holds no legal validity," Coalition Chairwoman Jean Spooner said.
"If the city is so strongly opposed to them going south that they are putting a lawsuit up," Alvarez asks, "how will they let them go west" into the Hamptons land? "How is that any different?"
If you peer over the bridge on Duraleigh Road that crosses Crabtree Creek and into the 400-foot quarry pit, you can see a machine spewing granite pellets to the top of an anthill shaped pile, mere feet away from a steep slope leading to the water.
Granite quarries have to operate near water because the granite must be washed when it comes to the surface, but Hanson's is closer to the creek than the state regulators would like. Current environmental regulations would not allow the quarry to be built there, but it was grandfathered in.
"That quarry is a very old quarry, and we would prefer to not have a quarry sitting right on top of a creek like that," says Jim Simons, state geologist and director of the state's Division of Land Resources.
A newer quarry would be required to be hidden with evergreen vegetation or screening. The Neuse River Buffer regulations would apply to the quarry, but because the quarry was approved in the 1940s, it predates both the existing environmental regulations and the City of Raleigh zoning ordinance.
That can cause problems, like the spill that occurred in 2007 when Hanson's holding pond ruptured and sediment fell into the quarry. That triggered a Division of Water Quality (DWQ) investigation and resulted in Hanson paying a $20,701 fine.
Then last month, 33,750 gallons of light gray wastewater flowed into the creek and stretched for 1,500 feet when Hanson's wastewater pond overflowed. Hanson self-reported the incident and has since added an alarm to notify quarry operators when there is not enough process water and a switch to cut off water flow when the wastewater tank is full.
Concerns about noise and vibrations dominated discussions in September, when Hanson met with neighbors of the quarry. Homeowners pointed to damage caused by blasting, noting that vibrations have cracked water pipes. Hanson agreed to hire independent seismic engineers to evaluate the vibrations and to create a website with information on the rezoning process and quarry operations.
Despite neighbor unrest, Simons, the state geologist, says the company has received few violations in more than 50 years of operation. "From time to time there have been complaints of blasting vibrations, but our monitoring has shown that I don't think we have ever documented a blasting violation over there, or if we have, it's been rare," Simons says. "As far as we are concerned, they have a good record."
Sig Hutchinson, "Mr. Green Jeans" as he's called around Raleigh, sees the quarry plans as an opportunity to connect the local greenway system. He has been working to build 150 miles of trails spanning from Falls Lake to Durham's American Tobacco complex, and he calls Crabtree Creek the connection point for the rest of the grid.
"When I talk to groups interested in greenways, far and away the most important segue that people talk about is this connection at Crabtree Creek."
But the city needs Hanson's land for the easement that would allow access to Umstead Park via the Crabtree Greenway. The company was once willing to build the greenway, but the lawsuit on the south side derailed those plans. "Feelings got hurt, heels got dug in and nobody was interested in talking to each other," Hutchinson says, and now the option for the quarry to buy the Hamptons property creates a window of opportunity for the greenway. "If this goes away, it's just too easy for them to walk away and never open the door again."
Alvarez agrees that a greenway would be beneficial, but he questions the cost. "It's a nice carrot, but it comes at the expense of blasting frequently and affecting a lot of people," Alvarez says.
Hanson also is willing to allow its current pit to be used for flood control. "We know we're not looked on real favorably by the community, so it's an opportunity for us to really give something back," says Chris Ward, Hanson Southeast vice president and general manager. The flood control program, however, would require new permits to build a dam and government money to buy and install the pumps. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the cost at $20 million. Gaylord says the financial details are yet to be determined, but he expects city, state and federal dollars would be needed.
A brochure still available at the Hamptons sales office shows a pleasant creek, a stunning red cardinal, flowers in bloom and the offer, "The Hamptons at Umstead ... what you've been waiting for."
"Tranquil," "Beautiful," "Private," the calming cursive writing suggests.
"Live the life of your dreams," it says.
So far, the Alvarez home is one of only six in the Hamptons' first phase, which features about 100 lots starting at $190,000 for the land or $800,000 for a house.
And, with the rezoning application looming, life there hasn't been dreamy.
Now the Northwest Citizens Advisory Council is meeting to discuss and vote on the project before it goes to City Council in January. Hanson has "engaged us," Alvarez says. "But I kind of want to tell them that there's very little wiggle room here. I don't think industrial blasting is good for anyone here."
Others are still willing to listen, but they want to see a timeline, including a sunset date for the current pit and legal language binding Hanson to its flood control, greenway and lawsuit promises.
Spooner, the Umstead Coalition chairwoman, remains optimistic, but says the group is yet to take an official position on the rezoning. "We are at a crossroads here, where the quarry could be a better neighbor because they are reaching out to the community, but it is complex."