Sussex County officials have hit the owner of a composting business with a notice of violation for not complying with a deadline to clean up the site of his operation near Milford.
The violation was delivered Dec. 12 to Bruce Blessing, owner of Blessing Greenhouses and Compost and Blessing's Blends, three days after a deadline set by county council when they granted a conditional-use application in August.
County officials gave Blessing four months to remove a large precompost pile from a cement pad or post a $1 million performance bond to get the work done within another year. The notice states he has not met either condition. Blessing said he has removed about 50 percent of the pile and he has been unable to obtain a $1 million bond.
He said he is working to fulfill the conditions. “I've been painted as the bad guy as being not compliant, but that's not the case,” Blessing said. “I want to comply and move on with my business.”
He said he has documentation showing he has passed county and state inspections.
Failure to comply with the conditions could result in termination of the conditional-use approval, said Sussex Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell. “The violation may also be forwarded to the appropriate court for enforcement,” she wrote in the notice.
County Administrator Todd Lawson said, “The bond requirement has not been met, and it is now in the county attorney’s hands for the appropriate next steps.”
Blessing said he and his attorney, Tim Willard, pursued a $1 million bond but learned the work did not add up to that total.
In a letter to Blessing, Hudson Insurance Co. attorney Russell Tester wrote that after reviewing the scope of work, the cost to remediate the site would cost less than half of the requested bond. “It would make more sense to lower the bond amount to $250,000 since the work required to remediate the site is closer to that amount,” he wrote.
Applicant files another application
County Administrator Todd Lawson said one of the conditions required total cleanup of the site – not 50 percent, which is the amount Blessing says he has removed so far.
“The bottom line is there is a violation of the conditional use and a $1 million bond is required for the site,” Lawson said. “The county will need proof of that. The matter is in the attorney's hands to give us guidance on the appropriate next step. We acknowledge he is asking for amendments,” Lawson said. “But until county council amends the conditional use, all conditions must be met.”
Lawson said Blessing filed another application seeking amended conditions not long after council passed the conditional use. Lawson said the application is in the pipeline, and county council will have to take it under consideration.
“We are losing sight that this could have all been avoided if the site had been cleaned up in four months,” Lawson said. “That should have been the focus of the applicant.”
Pile cleanup among conditions
Cleanup of a large outdoor pile of precompost material was among a long list of conditions the county issued in approving a conditional use to allow Blessing to continue his operation along Draper Road.
Removal of the material was scheduled to begin when the application was approved. In a letter to the county, DNREC officials said there were as many as 100,000 tons of material in the pad-site area.
Once the material is cleared off the cement pad, the area can no longer be used for composting.
Willard said the county's underlying concern that the material be removed is being met, and total removal will completed within a year. He said DNREC officials report they are monitoring pace of removal and it is proceeding appropriately. “To that extent ... no bond is needed at all,” he wrote in a letter to the county.
Inspections occur in November
State and county inspectors visited the facility in November.
Following a Nov. 28 inspection, DNREC environmental scientist Brian Churchill found the overall effects on the surrounding community are improving. He said he did not observe anything at the facility that he would consider a significant nuisance. “It appears that the facility is continuing to take steps to reduce its impact on the surrounding community and make progress in removing stockpiled compost,” he wrote.
In addition, he noted stormwater controls in place have been keeping nutrient-rich stormwater from leaving the property.
Following a November inspection at the site, Sussex County zoning inspector Jeff Whaley wrote “the property was not in need of remedy with DNREC before the conditional use was granted nor now even after the conditional use has been granted. So, the property is in compliance with the DNREC secretary's order and is in no need of a performance bond.”
Whaley reported the precompost pile had been reduced another 30 percent since an Aug. 10 inspection, and no new items had been added to the pile.
“At the end of the day, I've been compliant all the time,” Blessing said after reading the comment.
Lawson said the inspector's observation was not within his scope of his duties. “He was there to investigate the site to see if the applicant had met the conditions and the timeline. It doesn't change the fact that the cleanup of the site has not happened,” he said.
The violation notice was also issued to Red Fox Farm owners Frank and Marilyn Draper, who Blessing leases the property from.
Blessing has plans for the future
Blessing said he still plans to move forward with construction of a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art indoor recycling facility. “But I can't do that until I get all agency approvals, and that could take at least a year,” he said, adding it would take another five or six years before the facility would be fully operational. “I admit that we need new infrastructure,” he said.
He said if the process moves forward, he would obtain a performance bond as required by state environmental officials and submit a site plan to county officials.
But he said it be would be hard to work under a conditional use that could be revoked.
The plan includes seven new 11,000-square-foot covered buildings with 12-inch concrete floors capable of processing 4,000 cubic yards of compost at a time.
Blessing Blends organic compost is the major product produced at the site and is sold retail and wholesale. Flowers and vegetables are grown in greenhouses at the site.
Residents have complained for years about odors and runoff from the site. Willard testified during public hearings that with the new process and safeguards in place, those problems will no longer be issues.