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Vashon Cemetery Road business stumped by King County code

For the past decade, Frank Zellerhoff Jr. has been grinding stumps, roots and other land-clearing debris on his five-acre parcel on Cemetery Road, transforming the waste into chips, mulch and compost that he sells to landscapers and other Islanders.

His operation, however, is in violation of King County code. And while a code change approved by the county council this spring opened the door to such activities in rural areas, Zellerhoff’s activity is still not allowed. The code change applies only to those with 10 acres or more of land.

Zellerhoff, who owns a small construction company, plans to seek a special permit that would allow him to operate his grinder on five acres.

But county officials, who issued a notice that he was in violation in April 2006, said they remain concerned about the operation.

“The code change does do him some good. Prior to the code change, he was not allowed to do it at all,” said Sheryl Lux, a code enforcement officer for the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services. “But yes, he remains in violation of county code.”

“Part of the reason it’s been open so long is that his operation is not obvious,” she added. “It took us a while to verify what he was doing on the site.”

Some of the neighbors say they’re frustrated by the operation.

Lisa and Bruce Cyra moved across the road from Zellerhoff’s operation last summer and were surprised by the amount of noise from the trucks that pull in and out of his grinding site much of the day, Lisa Cyra said. Zellerhoff, she said, “is very nice.” But she said she’s troubled by the near-constant and noisy activity, which often starts early in the morning.

“He is in a neighborhood,” she said. “I know it’s rural and doesn’t impact 100 people. But we live in a rural place for a reason.”

Potter Liz Lewis, who lives on land adjacent to Zellerhoff’s, said she sees it differently.

“I’m certainly aware of the business he does over there. But it’s all in the daytime,” she said. “It’s not bothering me.”

Zellerhoff said he knew his grinding-operation violated county code when he started it 10 years ago and has never tried to hide the activity; stories mentioning his work there have appeared in The Beachcomber, for instance. Because he was in a residential area, he also has been searching for another site, knowing at some point the county might try to close him down, he said.

But until the county code change in March, such activities were allowed only on those parcels zoned industrial. And such sites are few on Vashon, he said.

“In the last 10 years, there’s nothing that’s hit the market,” he said. “We’ve been shopping for quite a while.”

Zellerhoff, who appealed the county’s notice that he’s in violation of zoning laws, said his property on Cemetery Road is ideal for his operation, a service he says is needed on the Island. His grinder is some 300 feet from the road on property that backs up against the county transfer station. The land is steep and would be difficult to develop for any other purpose, he said.

“It’s a perfect location,” he said.

What’s more, a change in outdoor burning will make his service even more in demand, he said.

Currently, land-clearing debris that is not ground into chips and mulch is either shipped off the Island or burned, he said. But as of July 1, burning stumps and trees from land-clearing operations will be banned on all of Vashon, as a result of a decision issued by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency earlier this year.

His product is a good one, used by some of the Island’s best landscapers, he added. He contends, for instance, that it’s much better than the Cedar Grove compost that comes from off-Island and that he says has glass and plastic in it. The Dirt Yard on Vashon Highway also grinds stumps and roots into chip and mulch.

“Instead of producing smoke, we’re producing an environmentally friendly product,” Zellerhoff said.

But Jean Bosch, the realtor who sold the Cyras their house last summer, said it doesn’t matter that what he’s doing results in a quality product or is good for the environment.

“There are lots of desirable activities that I wouldn’t want next to my home,” she said. “That’s why we have zoning.”

Bosch, who is vice-chair of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, said she’d oppose his efforts to get what’s called a conditional use permit to allow his grinding operation on his five-acre parcel, saying such a move could be a bad precedent for Vashon.

“I think this could very easily be an Island-wide issue, and thus the community council might take a stand on it,” she said. “If it could happen on five acres, it could happen anywhere on Vashon.”

Once Zellerhoff completes his application for a conditional use permit, the county will require a public comment period and full zoning review. Lisa Cyra said she and her husband will likely speak out against the proposed permit. The Cyras bought their house after renting a home for years on S.W. 171st, across the street from the new wastewater treatment plant; the noise from that project was so loud it made their house shake, she said.

“Now we own. We’re not going anyplace,” she said. “And I’m not thrilled about him being across the street.”

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