A local activist group says state officials purposely shut out the public four years ago and created a larger airport "noise zone," unexpectedly raising sound levels in many communities surrounding Baltimore- Washington International.
Aviation officials, however, argue that the public was adequately informed that the noise zone could be enlarged beyond what was presented at the final public hearing.
It took the group, the Airport Coordinating Team, three years and many court hearings to force the state's Transportation Review Board to hear its case, which charges state officials with enlarging the noise zone to pave the way for expansion.
Both sides presented their cases last week in two days of testimony before the state's Transportation Review Board, the second round of hearings since July.
The noise zone designates areas with an average daily noise level of at least 65 decibels, about that of a downtown commercial street.
Residential developments are prohibited within the zone without special permits, and zone residents are eligible for state grants to buy their homes or relocate.
Michael West, the associate administrator for planning and engineering for the Maryland Aviation Association, testified Friday that those programs, which are state and federally funded, could be jeopardized should ACT win its case and the noise zone be rescinded.
"There would be a lot of confusion," he said. "The MAA has denied zoning based on this noise zone." He added that the status of grant money also would be questioned.
Mr. West testified that state officials decided against a second public hearing in 1988, despite many changes, because the issues were discussed at earlier meetings.
He said the noise zone was enlarged because of comments from Howard County officials, who discredited airport assertions that noise levels would go down two decibels due to a voluntary noise reduction program promoted by the airport.
"It was our opinion and our judgment that the public had been provided much information throughout the course of the
hearings," Mr. West said. "The issues were very well defined and understood."
But ACT contends airport officials purposely excluded the public "in flagrant violation" of the law, said the group's lawyer, Constance Burton. Although the MAA is drawing up a new map -- as the law requires it to do every five years -- ACT leaders
say they are pursuing the matter to prevent future violations.
"When the government proposes something to the public and then makes changes, it just can't go along as if the public isn't involved in the process," she said.
Ms. Burton defended ACT's legal standing to bring a complaint, a claim the state disputes. Lawyers for the MAA argue that the organization does not own land in the noise zone, and contend some of its members who testified Friday did not attend the public meetings in 1988.
Ms. Burton said two Circuit Court judges already have upheld ACT's right to challenge the noise zone.
No date has been set for the next hearing.