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Vienna ends town leaf grinding but will encourage residents to mulch

Fallen leaves can be turned into mulch (via Susan Jones/Unsplash)

The Town of Vienna will no longer grind up fallen leaves at its collection facility on Beulah Road NE, ending a program that has delivered free mulch to residents for decades.

The Vienna Town Council voted unanimously yesterday (Monday) to turn the upcoming leaf collection season into a trial period, maintaining the Beulah Road facility as a storage site while exploring the best method for transporting leaves for disposal.

“We give you the flexibility to essentially determine what the cheapest alternatives are,” Councilmember Chuck Anderson said to town staff. “Then, we revisit this next year to see what the results of your sort of transitional year is to figure out the efficient way of doing this.”

The town’s mulching operations at the 8-acre Beulah Road site have been the subject of debate for years, with residents taking exception to the machine’s noise, smell, and environmental impact.

Rising leaf disposal costs led the town to reevaluate its collection program, which ground up about one-third of the leaves collected every fall into mulch and sent the remainder to Loudoun Composting.

Town staff presented several possible alternatives, including using the Beulah site for storage but transporting all leaves to Loudoun Composting and taking the leaves directly to the disposal site.

While some community members expressed appreciation for the town’s mulch deliveries at a public hearing in March, a survey of whether users would still order mulch if they had to pay $50 per load received mixed results, with 62 out of 114 respondents saying they would.

“I don’t see any economic or environmental justification whatsoever for continuing the mulching,” Anderson said. “…It’s just something that’s costing the town and causing a lot of issues for people who live nearby.”

Instead of settling on a definitive process, the town will take a variety of approaches to this year’s leaf collection season, which will begin in late October, to see how the program will work without mulching and what costs to expect.

A staff analysis found that, based on current fuel costs, it would cost Vienna $138.02 per hour to hire rental trucks to transport leaves for disposal, compared to $192.81 an hour to use its own trucks. The rental trucks can also carry 25 cubic yards of leaves to the town truck’s 21 cubic yards.

“By using the rental trucks, we have more capacity, which equals fewer trips, which equals fewer miles and fewer gallons, so it is truly efficient, but it also allows flexibility that is required. We’re not limiting staff to that one option,” Councilmember Steve Potter said.

While the town will stop providing mulch, the council directed staff and the Conservation and Sustainability Commission to develop recommendations for a program to encourage residents to mulch leaves on their own properties.

Many localities, including Fairfax County, are already encouraging residents to “leave their leaves,” citing the environmental benefits of composting or using a mower to mulch leaves so they can decompose.

Anderson suggested Vienna could develop an educational program and potentially offer incentives for on-site leaf mulching.

“I know that not everyone is in a position to do this, but the work of staff and the CSC made it very clear that, from an environmental standpoint, that was by far the lowest carbon footprint and the best result,” Anderson said. “From an economic standpoint, it’s also the cheapest, because we don’t incur the costs of picking [leaves] up and all the rest.”

With its mulching operations shutting down, the town now has to find a long-term use for the Beulah Road leaf collection site. Some neighboring residents have advocated for turning the property into a park.

“We’re not going to be using that land 10, 15 years from now for leaves,” Councilmember Ray Brill said.

Photo via Susan Jones/Unsplash

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