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Will concrete plant leave historic home in dust?

Zoning laws didn’t exist in Forest Grove in 1854, when A.T. “God Almighty” Smith first felled giant oak trees near what is now the south end of Elm Street, then yoked oxen to a hand-built cart with oak trunk slices for wheels and hauled the wood to the site where he built his two-story house. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JILL REHKOPF SMITH - The A.T. Smith house would be separated from the Westside Redi-Mix concrete plant by a 3.2-acre field owned by the city of Forest Grove, which plans to turn it into a park. This photo was taken near the site of the proposed plant.

Forest Grove didn’t exist either, of course. Back then, the house was surrounded by forests and fields.

Now it looks north to Highway 47 and east to an industrial zone that includes SakéOne brewery, Forest Grove Storage and Kerr Contractors, Inc., which recycles building materials, including concrete, asphalt and various kinds of rock.

Soon, if Forest Grove planning staff approve the application, a concrete plant could join the neighborhood. This worries the Friends of Historic Forest Grove, a local nonprofit which protects and promotes the city’s history and buildings — none more so than its centerpiece attraction, the A.T. Smith House.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JILL REHKOPF SMITH - The beeping, growling earth movers at Kerr Contractors, across the road from a city-owned field and the A.T. Smith house, already stir up a lot of dust and noise.

The Friends group has big plans for the house and property, hoping to turn it into a destination for school children and for tourists from all over the state or even beyond. Long-term visions include a living-history museum, where people in period costumes demonstrate olden-days crafts such as butter churning or blacksmithing, allowing visitors a vivid taste of the past.

But FHFG members worry that a concrete plant would threaten those plans, bringing air pollution, water pollution, traffic and noise that will ruin the historic home’s appeal.

“We’re not trying to be Chicken Littles and ‘the sky is falling,’” said Diane Morris, FHFG president. “We know they have a right to put a business there. We’re just trying to raise questions so afterward we won’t regret.”

Forest Grove staff are reviewing the concrete plant’s permit application and Senior Planner James Reitz expects a decision this week.

Dust to dust

The main concern of the Friends group and of Forest Grove Storage is dust. Kerr already stirs up dust as its heavy equipment rumbles over the gravel lot and bites into huge piles of dirt and rubble.

Forest Grove Storage Owner Shari Lort says Kerr’s dust ends up on her parked car. “In the matter of one day it’s completely covered, like I can go write my name on my car,” she said. It creeps into her office as well.

Lort and the Friends group assume concrete-plant dust will be worse — not just in quantity but in quality. Cement dust is alkaline, the Friends’ letter to the city points out.

While the A.T. Smith house is a couple football fields away from the site of the proposed plant, there’s no structure to block dust drifting or blowing over the empty, city-owned field in between.

In Texas, a 2010 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal story about a controversial concrete plant reported people living a few football fields away still saw a “sharp increase” in dust after that plant opened.

In Forest Grove, neighbors of the old Van Doren Red-E-Mix concrete plant on 26th Avenue had dust problems before the plant closed last December — and not just next-door neighbors but even Lori Hobbs, who lives across the street and six doors south.

But John Malnerich, owner of the proposed Westside Redi-Mix & Rock plant, said his plant differs from Van Doren’s in a number of ways. To start with, it will be about half the size, although it will actually produce more because it’s so much newer and more efficient, he said.

Malnerich, who also owns Westside Rock, said his concrete plant has extra safeguards against dust because it was a backup plant at the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility in southern California, so had stiffer requirements. Malnerich bought and hauled the plant to Forest Grove, where it’s now sitting on the Kerr site (Brent Kerr is his son-in-law), waiting for permit approval.

In addition to the standard vacuum systems for filtering out dust during the silo-loading process (when the concrete is still in powder form) and during the next stage, when the cement drops out of the silo onto the conveyor belt, this plant has a third system to vaccum up dust when the cement drops off the conveyor belt into the trucks. For most other plants, dust problems come from that truck loading stage, Malnerich said.

In addition, Malnerich said he plans to pave the site so there won’t even be dust from trucks driving over gravel.

The plant comes with an air-discharge permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality, which will come out and inspect the plant after it’s set up, Malnerich said.

Water, traffic, noise

The Friends group also wonders whether some of the chemicals used at the concrete plant could pollute the nearby Fernhill Wetlands run by Clean Water Services (CWS), which manages Washington County’s water resources.

But CWS issued a stormwater permit to Westside Redi-Mix last week that will allow drivers to wash out their trucks (the main source of water contamination), apparently confident Malnerich has enough oil separators, containment bins and other safeguards in place.

No wastewater will leave the site until it goes through a filtering system and the pH (acidity level) is checked by a lab, Malnerich said.

The Friends group is also concerned about traffic problems between what they expect to be a “considerable” increase in truck traffic and the school buses or private vehicles traveling to the Smith House.

Malnerich estimates there will be about 15 truck trips (30 counting round trips) to his plant each day.

Reitz said the city, which updated its transportation plan last year, did so with the expectation of an increase in industrial traffic at the intersection of 47 and Elm.

Of all the concerns raised, the only issue officially addressed in city code is noise. “We have a quantifiable, permissible sound ordinance that specifies decibel levels at certain times of day,” Reitz said.

But noise is the least of FHFG’s concerns. And Malnerich thinks his plant will be quieter than Kerr’s growling, beeping earth movers. If it turns out to be too noisy, he said, “we’ll put up a nice berm and plant some trees on it or something.”

Malnerich touts the reputation he built up at Westside Rock, where he won “Outstanding Quarry Operator of the Year” and other awards due to his pattern of going “above and beyond minimum requirements,” said Bob Brinkman, a hydrogeologist/reclamationist with the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, which handled Malnerich’s mining permit. “I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have as a permit holder.”

Still, the Friends want to know who will enforce the permit standards once the plant is operational. And how often will it be checked? “These are difficult areas to monitor and to govern. Continuing compliance, not just at the outset, but every day ... is crucial,” their letter states.

Good time for outreach

Malnerich said he met some Friends members a few years ago at a Citizen Participation Organization meeting, where they were trying to raise money for the Smith house. But he hasn’t heard from them since then.

Morris said this issue has showed the Friends the importance of reaching out to more than just history buffs or potential donors. “We’ve realized we need to get to know our neighbors better,” she said.

Those neighbors have varying opinions on the concrete plant. Farmer Hally Haworth, who owns the adjacent farmland, has some concerns but also feels the property owners “have a right to make a living, whether it goes along with what I think or not.” He trusts the permitting process and the city’s “due diligence.”

Tom Gamble, director of Forest Grove’s Parks and Recreation Department, which will manage the acreage between the A.T. Smith House and the plant site, said his only concern is that the city mitigate for any dust or noise or other plant-related problems when it designs a park for that space — whether by putting up a wall or planting trees or something else.

The neighbors might all have a chance to share their varying viewpoints in the next month or two. FHFG is planning a neighbor-focused open house at the A.T. Smith House.

Malnerich thinks that’s a good idea. Connecting with him in a positive way might work out well later, he said.

“Maybe someday they’ll want to put a sidewalk to that house.”