Arlington’s plans to demolish a roughly 90-year-old storage “dome” for road salt and build a temporary replacement are inching forward, even as some neighbors have cried foul about the county’s rushed public engagement process for the project.
The county Planning Commission unanimously lent its seal of approval last night (Thursday) to a series of zoning changes to let work on the salt dome move ahead, keeping the county on track to move about 4,500 tons of salt into a new shelter in time for the first threats of snow in late November.
Officials discovered this spring that the old dome, made out of a repurposed water tank and located on a piece of county property near the intersection of 25th Road N. and Old Dominion Drive, was on the verge of collapse. Considering that the dome was one of just two of the county’s facilities for road salt storage, staff wanted to take urgent action to commission a replacement.
The County Board agreed to kick off that process in July, but people living nearby were peeved that officials would push ahead with these changes on a considerably more expedited timeline than Arlington’s notoriously lengthy engagement guidelines might normally allow. Many neighbors were particularly concerned that the temporary replacement for the dome might become permanent, lending a considerably more industrial feel to the neighborhood, which is just near Marymount University.
“It will be the defining feature of the entrance of our neighborhood, and it will say ‘Welcome to Industrialville,'” Mike Hogan, president of the Old Dominion Citizens Association, told the commission. “Never have so many planning rules been violated in one proposal as this one.”
Arlington Department of Environmental Services Director Greg Emanuel stressed to the commission the rushed process is “clearly not how we prefer to do our work,” offering a mea culpa for his staff’s failure to identify the problem a bit earlier. But he also emphasized that the project was so important that it was worth speeding things along — should the dome fail, he expects the county would see its response time to a snowstorm increase anywhere from 30 to 40 percent.
“There should’ve been a public process, there’s no question about it,” Planning Commission Chair Jane Siegel told ARLnow. “Nobody’s trying to hide the ball here… but if there is no salt storage in the appropriate part of the county, we risk people getting injured.”
Siegel expects that county staffers managed to overlook the salt dome’s degrading status because the property was at one time slated to become the home of a replacement for Fire Station 8. When those plans fell apart, she suspects the salt dome got lost in the shuffle, as officials were initially expecting it to be removed.
Some neighbors, however, were not so convinced of the county’s good intentions.
“We’ve all known for a long time this is failing,” Jacqueline Smith, another Old Dominion resident, told the commission. “This is a really predictable crisis… and we’re being put under this pressure, saying we have no other options. And personally, I don’t see that.”
But Emanuel told the commission that staff did examine other options for the temporary salt dome, like a site the county uses for storing leaf removal and the Buck property, a piece of county land near Ballston eyed for all manner of uses over the years. Neither option, however, would quite fit the county’s needs, Emanuel said.
Even with the county stuck using the Old Dominion property, Siegel pointed out that vocal community scrutiny of the project managed to force some concessions from the county to make the effort a bit more tolerable. For instance, the county shrank the amount of land it plans to use for the project, and will save all but three trees it originally planned to cut down on the site.
“Even though it was not a full public process, the public did weigh in and get some wins out of this,” Siegel said.
Still, Old Dominion neighbors worry about the site’s future.
“We recognize this is intended to be temporary, but we’d like to know what temporary means,” Hogan said.
Manuel estimates that the temporary structure will stay in place for the next three to four years, until the county can build a new salt storage tank. And for any concerned neighbors, Siegel also points out that the County Board will soon convene a working group on a “master plan” for the property, a process she says might not have started for quite some time without the community’s interest in the salt dome.
“Temporary things become permanent if there’s no opposing group or force or idea, but here there obviously will be,” Siegel said. “There is a bulwark against the drift.”
The County Board will get a chance to weigh in on the salt dome zoning changes at its Sept. 22 and Sept. 25 meetings.