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Vienna Town Council still undecided on future of free mulch services

The Town of Vienna is contemplating eliminating its free mulch delivery services (via Maddy Baker/Unsplash)

To mulch or not to mulch? That is the question the Town of Vienna has been mulling for years now, fertilized by resident frustrations with a noisy mulch grinder on Beulah Road.

An answer will come at last later this spring, when the town council votes on whether to continue free mulch delivery services that have been offered to residents for as long as anyone present at Monday’s public hearing (March 21) on the subject could remember.

According to Mayor Linda Colbert, emails sent to the council prior to the hearing were about evenly split between supporters of the mulch service — which uses a portion of the town’s annual leaf collections — and those who want to eliminate it.

“It was obvious people feel very strongly one way or the other, and people mention a lot of good reasons either way,” Colbert said. “It’s something I know all of the council has thought hard about.”

Vienna Director of Public Works Mike Gallagher presented three options for handling collected leaves going forward:

  1. Maintain current operations: Some leaves are ground into mulch at the Beulah Road facility. The remainder is transported to a Loudoun Composting disposal site.
  2. Short haul: Leaves are consolidated at the Beulah site before being hauled away for disposal, ending the mulch program.
  3. Long haul: Leaves go directly to Loudoun Composting, ending the mulch program and use of the Beulah Road facility.

A cost analysis developed with a resident’s assistance suggests the first option would be the most expensive one, while the long haul would be cheapest. If the mulching program ends, Gallagher said some of the expenses would shift to other town operations, rather than getting eliminated.

Vienna could maintain its current mulching operations, end mulching but still use the Beulah site, or eliminate both (via Town of Vienna)

“There’s obviously some pros and cons to each one of these,” he said.

Scrutiny of the town’s mulching facility at the 8-acre Beulah Road site stretches back to at least 2004, when residents in northeastern Vienna raised environmental concerns. The resulting debate concluded with a conditional-use permit approval in 2005.

Complaints about the grinder’s noise and smell have resurfaced in recent years, including in the 2021 town council race, but the current reevaluation was largely triggered by rising costs: In 2020, Loudoun Composting started charging $9 a ton for previously free services.

For the last leaf collection season, which lasted from October through December, the price jumped up to $30 per ton, according to Gallagher, who added that it remains the cheapest disposal site available.

So far, the town has hauled 700 tons of leaves to Loudoun Composting this past season, down from 865 tons in 2020-2021 and 926 tons in 2019-2020. Gallagher attributes the decline primarily to residents turning to private contractors for leaf collection.

Mulch deliveries have fluctuated, from 756 loads in 2019-2020 to 497 last year and 771 in the current cycle.

However, some speakers at the public hearing said the limited amount of mulch means only a handful of residents actually benefit from the free service, even though the costs are carried by all taxpayers.

“In my opinion, free mulch delivery to only 6% of the households in Vienna creates a fairness and equity issue in the way tax revenues are used,” resident Paul Kominsky said. “Free mulch is not a universal benefit available to all homeowners like trash pickups is.”

Other community members said they appreciate the mulching service, suggesting Vienna could adjust it — for instance, by adding a surcharge — instead of completely eliminating it.

“We do use the mulch, and it beautifies the gardens,” said Phil Walsh, acknowledging that he doesn’t live near the Beulah Road facility. “It enhances the trees, and it adds to the beauty of the various properties.”

The town council agreed to discuss the issue further in a conference session on April 18. The council will vote on April 25 or May 2 — in time to ensure it’s considered in the new town budget, which is scheduled to be approved on May 16.

“We’re not trying to kick a can down the road, but we want to be very certain of our facts and figures when we make a decision,” Councilmember Ray Brill said.

Photo via Maddy Baker/Unsplash

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