Burke Nursery's property is one of contrasts. The front is lined with colorful flowers, ceramic planters and stone statuary. The back has rusting storage containers, structures constructed without permits and old vehicles, in addition to the countless items necessary to operate a nursery.
But the nursery's thousands of customers and dozens of nearby residents don't see the back, said Ron DeAngelis, who has owned the nursery since it opened in 1978.
"In 30 years, I've never had a person tell me the place looks junky," DeAngelis said.
But on April 20 and again on May 11, Planning Commissioner Peter Murphy (Springfield) said essentially that — that the nursery, located on Burke Road gave him the impression that it was a junkyard. On May 11, the Fairfax County Planning Commission recommended denying the nursery's application to continue to operate in its current state.
The nursery first opened in 1978, and, at the time, it was allowed by right. After it opened, the county changed the Zoning Ordinance requiring a special exception to operate a plant nursery.
While the nursery could continue to operate without the exception, it would require permits to expand. Since 1978, numerous changes have been made to the site including the construction of buildings without proper permits, according to Department of Planning and Zoning staff reports.
Additionally, about 80 percent of the 21.8-acre property is in a floodplain. While nurseries were permitted by right in floodplains at the time, they are not any longer and require an additional level of permitting.
In 2002, the Board of Supervisors again changed the Zoning Ordinance regarding to plant nurseries. Since then, nurseries across the county having been going through the necessary processes to come into compliance with the law.
IN THE PROCESS of evaluating the Burke Nursery, Planning and Zoning staff, and Murphy came across several problems with the nursery that have been in existence for years.
Over decades in business, the nursery has thrived and expanded its operations. In the course of doing that, the owners built some structures, but did not receive the proper permits. They began using old vehicles as storage containers, but these vehicles which sit a few hundred feet form the Pohick Creek, are rusting.
The nursery has allowed community organizations, such as the Lions Club, to store a trailer on the large property.
"It's almost like a community service," DeAngelis said. "What do you do? Do you tell them 'No?'"
Other old things have just been around for a while. DeAngelis bought a large metal container that has been used as part of a sewage system about 25 years ago. He'd planned to put it to use to hold water on the grounds of the nursery, but didn't implement the plan. The drum sits rusting on the property, but DeAngelis said he's already sold it and it should soon be gone.
The items, Murphy said, do not belong at a plant nursery.
The offending items, which DeAngelis committed to remove, are not visible to the neighbors, and over the years, he has never received a complaint about any of them, he said. "If people had complained, I would have removed them," he said.
DeAngelis said he did not think that the rusting trucks, which he said are about 500 feet from the creek posed a potential environmental problem. He said that iron can be good for some plants.
"In 30 years of business, I have had not one person from the [U.S.] Environmental protection Agency come out and tell me there was a problem."
While rust from metals like iron is not a top problem in the areas waterways, it is still an environmental hazard, said Stella Koch chair of the Fairfax County Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.
"Unless we dispose of everything properly, it all ends up in a water body," said Koch, who praised the nursery for committing to removing the trucks.
On a 21-acre property, it can be easy to forget that some things are there, said Fred Dickenson, the manager of the nursery who has worked there since its opening. "A lot of it, it’s out of sight, out of mind," he said.
Most of the equipment which is being removed can't be seen from the neighborhood, said Andy Chaves, president of the Cardinal Estates Home Association, which is located across the street form the nursery. However, it is visible when he goes in the back of the nursery as a customer.
"I think there's always a concern that if something's not well kept, how well is the business run?" he said. "If they are going to clean things up, we applaud that."
Chaves said that his neighborhood of about 170 homes is generally supportive of having the nursery. "The consensus was that we would prefer to have that there than a row of townhouses," Chaves said.
He estimated that 20-25 percent of the homeowners, including himself, patronize the business. While there were issues with employees parking in the neighborhood and littering, he said that the nursery management addressed them and the situation has improved.
THE NURSERY has been going through its process to get a Special Exception since 2003. On April 20, there was a public hearing at the Planning Commission. On May 11, the commission voted unanimously to deny the special exception.
Murphy said that he has tried to accommodate the nursery and has repeatedly deferred the application in order to give them time to resolve the outstanding issues.
"In my opinion, we have not made much progress," he said on May 11. "Quite frankly, I'm disappointed."
Murphy said he has not been receiving adequate cooperation from the nursery. He said that in deferring the Planning Commission decision for three weeks, he had hoped to give the nursery time to fix the problems. "Some things were done. Not enough, in my opinion," said Murphy, who had been to the nursery the night before. "It's still a junkyard."
Murphy praised the nursery as a business, and said that the customers there are usually happy. However, he said that he could not in good conscience support the request for a special exception.
Nursery management contends that it is working on cleaning up.
"We've always done exactly what they told us to do," DeAngelis said.
"We've gotten rid of five or six vehicles and four to five loads of trash," said Dickenson.
Dickenson and DeAngelis both said that they had not been aware of Murphy's timetable for removing the items. They said they were under the impression that they would have about 18 months to make the necessary changes. They also noted that this is the busiest time of year for their business.
"We have three months. Either we make money or we lose money," DeAngelis said.
Now that the Planning Commission has rejected the special exception, it goes to the Board of Supervisors for another public hearing and final decision. If the board approves, the business will continue to operate in much the same way it does now. If the board rejects the application, it will need to be returned to its last legal state, which was in 1978.
DeAngelis said he had not been present for Murphy's visit, so he was not sure exactly which items were considered most egregious. Once he has that list, DeAngelis expects to have everything taken care of prior to the public hearing at the Board of Supervisors, which may happen on June 26.
"If those trailers have to go by the 26th, they'll be gone within two weeks."