In its first meeting in months, the Orange County Planning Commission asked a litany of questions of a fireworks club seeking a special use permit set off their pyrotechnic creations on an agricultural parcel in District 2. 

The commission, meeting virtually last Thursday evening, opened a public hearing on the special use permit that will conclude when it reconvenes Thursday, June 4. At that time, any comments planning staff receive will be read into the record prior to the commission’s recommendation to the board of supervisors.

In a lengthy and detailed application, the Mid-Atlantic Pyrotechnic Arts Guild (MAPAG) seeks a special use permit to discharge fireworks during a series of long weekends on a 127-acre property on Woolfolk Lane in the south-central part of the county. Pyrotechnics testing and manufacturing on parcels 50 acres or larger are permitted with a special use permit.

The hobbyist club was formed in 2012 and routinely requested fireworks display permits from county staff for each time it met. Since then, the county has issued more than 80 permits to the group. In an effort to streamline the process, it met with the county administrator and attorney to achieve a more efficient permitting process for club events. MAPAG is a nonprofit club with approximately 80 members who are interested in the artistry, chemistry and engineering of fireworks. It generally meets one weekend a month from April through October and those gatherings include teaching safety, sharing ideas, building, testing and shooting fireworks. Events typically begin on Thursday and conclude Sunday.

The applicants were represented by club members Carolyn and Eddie Hostetter, who own the subject property, advisor and safety consultant Dr. John Steinberg and president David Stoddard.

Commission members asked questions about hours of operation, safety, noise and neighbors.

Many answers were couched amid the uncertainty of the current public health crisis.

While the club anticipated it would meet throughout the summer and into early fall, organizers admitted that may not be permissible under current guidelines and orders.

As to when they would ignite fireworks “on school nights” as opposed to weekends, there was some discussion about whether or not summer school would convene (after schools closed for the balance of the year in mid-March) and what impact that might have on the club’s anticipated schedule.

“We would make every attempt to make it an early evening if children go to school all summer long,” Carolyn Hostetter told the commission.

Dr. Steinberg noted that “loud is a subjective” concern. “What’s loud to me, may not be to you.” He likened the noise of the largest fireworks the club could ignite (under its proposed permit) as equal to a motorcycle or lawnmower.

“I’m a big fan of fireworks and I understand what your club is about, but I’m also a fan of Orange County and want to make sure what we’re doing here and that the neighbors know we’re doing our best to address their concerns,” District 1 commissioner Jason Cappelle said.

Stoddard assured the commission any launching of fireworks strictly would be limited to the prescribed gatherings in the proposed permit. “Members are not permitted at any other time to launch fireworks,” he said.

“I’ve contacted Orange County Sheriff Mark Amos and the Orange Volunteer Fire Company to see if there are any complaints or issues with this organization,” District 2 commissioner George Yancey said. “No. They seem to be a first-class operation and are supportive of the fire companies, allowing firefighters from Orange County to learn about fireworks and the issues they might face.”

Those “issues,” would seem unlikely, according to Dr. Steinberg and the group’s application.

“We have never had an accident and I don’t expect we will,” he said, with Carolyn Hostetter, a chemical engineer, noting any club member can speak up to stop a launch if they have any concern whatsoever.

After purchasing the property—which the Hostetters said had fallen into disrepair—they have cleaned it up and prepared it for club use. Their proposal calls for an equipment shed, tool and supply shed and a pavilion. Club members—approximately 35 of whom are active and regular attendees to the weekend events—would “dry camp” on the grounds. Portable restroom facilities would be contracted on site and the organization stages a utility vehicle outfitted with a water tank and pump for fire suppression. The site also includes a pond for supplemental water suppression should it be needed, the application notes. Entry to events would be limited to club members (except during a planned September open house) and all those attending would enter through a single gate with controlled access on Woolfolk Lane off of Grasty Lane and Lahore Road. The application notes the property gate is closed unless events are scheduled.

The application is available for review on the Orange County Planning Department website at www.orangecountyva.gov and comments can be submitted to planning director Sandra Thornton at sthornton@orangecountyva.gov or 128 W. Main Street, Orange, VA 22960. Comments on the special use permit must be received by 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 3, to be included in the record at the June 4 meeting.

The planning commission will make a recommendation on the special use permit to the board of supervisors which ultimately decides whether or not such a permit is approved, denied or approved with conditions.

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