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Lawyers Hill community lobbies for sound barrier

Traffic can be seen zipping along I-95 through the trees from the front porch of Michelle Kline's Elkridge home on Lawyers Hill Road.

The hum of traffic is constant and inescapable, even inside her home.

"Absolutely, I can hear it inside," Kline said. "I can put my hand to the wall and feel it vibrating."

Kline was one of about a dozen residents last week who attended Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's public hearing on the fiscal 2014 budget asking that funding for a sound barrier along I-95 near her home be included in the budget.

While residents in Kline's neighborhood lobby to improve their quality of life, the county acknowledged last week it has had funding for a sound barrier in its Capital Improvement Program for "quite some time," according to county spokesman David Nitkin.

"We're ready to move now," he said.

The county has allocated $2.5 million for the project over fiscal years 2014 and 2015, according to Nitkin.

"We would like to move as soon as possible," he said.

But the state's contribution for the project is uncertain.

Funding for a sound barrier is an 80-20 percent split, respectively, between the state and county, according to State Highway Administration spokesman Dave Buck.

Plans for a 7,054-foot long sound barrier, averaging 22 feet in height, along the northbound side of I-95 from Montgomery Road to the I-895 interchange are in the works, Buck said.

The state has allocated funding for the design of the $13 million project, Buck said, and the earliest date construction could start is mid-2015.

But the $9 to $11 million needed for construction is no sure thing in 2015.

"It's pure speculation," Buck said of funds being available.

He added that the project must compete for funding with projects from across the state on an annual basis.

Lawyers Hill is one of two historic districts in Howard County, with the other being Ellicott City. In the mid-1800s, lawyers from Baltimore built their summer homes here, giving the area its name.

The community originally included the homes across I-95 along Elibank Drive, but the interstate cut the neighborhood in half.

Kline moved to Lawyers Hill in July with her husband, Brad, and three-year-old son, Ryan, from Baltimore. The Klines have since had a daughter, Natalie.

Even though they realized there were concerns about the noise from traffic, Kline said they underestimated how loud it really was.

Her biggest issue is how the noise has affected Ryan.

In an emotional testimony at the budget hearing March 11, Kline said Ryan will be frightened by trucks barreling down the interstate and will end up trying to sleep on the floor in the hallway to escape the noise.

"It scares me that the noise frightens him to the point where he is not sleeping," she said.

Mary Nichols grew up on Old Lawyers Hill Road and has lived on Lawyers Hill Road since 1965, six years before the construction of I-95.

Nichols has advocated for a sound barrier in the past and said that when the county has funding for the project, the state doesn't and vice versa, which has led to years of inaction on the project.

"It's sad that we can't get this to happen in our lifetime," she said.

Nichols said her brothers and sisters are "appalled" by the noise when they visit their childhood neighborhood.

But to her knowledge, no one has moved from Lawyers Hill because of the noise.

After a decades long fight, Nichols said she is "more hopeful now" for a sound barrier because the county's state delegation is taking residents' concerns seriously.

Del. Steve DeBoy, who represents District 12A, including the Lawyers Hill community, said the project is being held up because of the lack of federal funding.

He said he's unsure if sequestration will impact those funds, but he's confident that the county's commitment will continue to be there and the state's design of the project will move forward during the next two years.

"It's waiting for those federal dollars, that's where we're at right now," DeBoy said.

At the corner of Lawyers Hill Road and Old Lawyers Hill Road is the historic Elkridge Assembly Room, built in 1871 to serve as a theater and dance hall for residents.

It now serves as a meeting place for the community's monthly pot-luck dinners and the site for the annual Fourth of July celebration, according to Pat Larkin, a resident of Old Lawyers Hill Road.

When asked a question concerning the sound barrier, Larkin asked to step outside the assembly room since its founders declared there would be no discussion of politics under its roof.

Just outside the door, the noise from traffic on I-95 is easy to hear, occasionally accentuated by a passing motorcycle.

"It's extremely irritating, isn't it?" Larkin said.

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