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Julie Weissend at the LEED-certified offices of her construction business Photo by Ash Daniel
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River City Recycling Photo by Ash Daniel
That first time she looked down the rolling landscape at the glass and steel of Richmond's skyline was like a bit of movie magic come to life for Julie Weissend.
"It looked like Oz to me," says Weissend, a tone of reverence creeping into her retelling of the moment in 2005 that she first discovered a 100-year-old corrugated metal barn with a view crumbling on a long-neglected spit of land in a blighted industrial corner of Bacon's Quarter. She and her husband, Paul, had been searching for a new location for their construction business, Dovetail Construction Co. Inc., at last taking the big step of moving the growing concern out of their home — and Julie had found the perfect spot.
By 2009, the Weissends' somewhere over the rainbow had been added to the National Register of Historic Places — turns out the long-neglected building was a rare turn-of-the-century electric-trolley maintenance barn — had received national LEED Platinum certification and had been transformed via $1.5 million in renovations into a state-of-the-art, net-energy-zero facility so "green" that the Emerald City might pale by comparison. Inside its industrial metal skin is a building-within-a-building of sleek post-urban design.
But while the now-beautiful building and the view of Richmond answered Weissend's dreams, she says that River City Recycling, the neighbor that moved in next door earlier this year, has been her "worst nightmare."
"We kept hearing construction noises and beeps and slams," she says. At first, she and her husband rolled with what they assumed was the sound of a new business moving in.
Then the junk cars started arriving — about 100 per week, piled a half-dozen high, not far from the property line separating her business from the new operation. As fast as the cars arrived, they were violently and loudly ripped apart, scrapped and compacted using the smashing arm of a backhoe.
"We were like, how can this happen?" Julie says. "Anywhere?" But 1207 School St. is not just anywhere. This area of Bacon's Quarter is zoned M-2, a city zoning classification meant to allow all but the most heavy of industrial uses. River City Recycling's Mathew Appelget figured the School Street location, an area east of Virginia Union University that's surrounded by dilapidated warehouse structures, auto-repair shops and light industrial businesses, was nearly perfect for what he wanted to do. To him, his metal recycling operation looks like the very model of a responsible green business. What comes in is one man's trash, but what goes out is gold. His operation produces less than a Dumpster of trash a month.
"We're not handling refuse," Appelget says, sitting at one end of a long, richly textured conference table in his School Street office that is itself made of reclaimed wood. "We moved in here, we invested a lot of money, we're in business and we created 17 jobs. We've been a great neighbor to the Weissends."
The Weissends don't see it that way, despite Appelget's efforts to convince them. "Once we determined this was a permanent demolition project, we complained to zoning, and we complained to the fire marshal — they sent someone from EPA out," says Julie, who watched the flurry of activity she'd caused through the chain-link fence separating the two properties. Afterward, she wasn't surprised when she got visitors of her own. "They came right over, Marty Williams and Mathew Appelget and the other Matthew [Molenkamp, River City's director of operations]. They said, ‘We're doing state-of-the-art stuff, and we want to show you.' "
The inside of River City Recycling looks state-of-the-art. Floors inside a large building housing about half of their operations are swept clear. Neat piles of carefully compacted, compressed or bundled metals await removal, while unprocessed junk is carefully sorted and prepared for recycled rebirth. Appelget proudly shows off a cutting-edge hydraulic lift of Austrian design where cars slated for scrap are first processed: Fluids are drained from gas tanks, engine blocks and crank cases using vacuum hoses that separate different substances into separate tanks before the empty husks are plugged to prevent any remaining fluid from escaping.
The Weissends, whose tour ended outside where the cars were to be hacked apart, weren't convinced. "I said … when you hack it, aren't the plugs going to go flying and the chemicals go everywhere?" Julie says. "They didn't like that at all." On one afternoon, as the acrid smell of burning chemicals wafts up the hill to her business, she watches as one man's welder sets a rusted container on fire. He waits a few minutes for it to burn out on its own before finally retrieving an extinguisher. When asked about this, Appelget responds that River City Recycling commissioned a study by Golder Associates that determined that no noise or smells produced by its facility were detectable off-site.
"There's a phenomenon called greenwashing where people are trying to rally around the green label without being substantive," Julie says. "I can't imagine hacking cars up and being able to smell fumes and chemicals and see all sorts of dust and debris — I can't see how this could possibly be [green]."
Williams, a former General Assembly representative from the Hampton Roads area, says he is a consultant for Appelget, but he's also very involved in daily operations at the facility — and he bristles at the increasing hostilities. "We've been environmentally inspected … we're not doing anything that's outside of what the ordinance allows.
"We've taken more than 5,000 cars off the street, recycled over 5,000 tons of miscellaneous metal — all of this stuff used to go to the landfill," Williams adds. "When [the Weissends] think environment, they think wetlands and trees. But that's not how you get there. They focus on what they do, and I don't know if they understand what a facility like ours does for the environment."
This is not Appelget's first trash — or treasure — operation. In 2011, even as he worked to convince the Weissends that his School Street operation was an ideological cousin to theirs, Henrico County revoked a permit for Appelget's East End Landfill. It was the conclusion to years of EPA citations and bitter complaints from neighbors about putrid smells. The sustained objection of environmental groups to Appelget's storage of a massive pile of coal ash, a potentially toxic coal byproduct, without proper county permits finally helped doom the facility.
It's also not his first "green" business. Appelget was a co-owner of ReStore in Shockoe Slip, which gained accolades for its creative reuse of construction debris — ancient wood recovered from old warehouses and historic properties — into beautiful floors and furniture. He notes that there's some irony in knowing that some of the recycled materials used to construct the Weissends' building came from ReStore.
Zoning officials have inspected River City numerous times, largely based on the Weissends' complaints, but they agree with Appelget that it is doing nothing against its zoning. State Department of Environmental Quality officials say they have no regulatory jurisdiction because it's a recycling facility, not a dump or landfill.
But past history isn't adding to Appelget's appeal for Richmond City Councilman Chris Hilbert, who expresses dismay over the coal-ash controversy in Henrico. "I've received complaints about it — serious complaints," says Hilbert of River City Recycling's facility.
"If this is permitted under our existing ordinances, then they should change," Weissend says, noting the facility's proximity to the VUU campus and to housing.
Williams and Appelget beg to differ.
"Everybody wants to think LEED buildings and swampland restoration" when they think of green industry, Williams says. "This is a critical component — I think much more critical than [the Weissends']."
Appelget takes a more diplomatic tone, saying he's simply seeking harmony between two businesses cut from the same green cloth: "This is not about incompatibility," he says. "It's about personality."