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Jet takeoffs buffet BWI neighbors Soundproofing aid hinges on study by engineers; 'The whole house shakes'; Tests could result in federal standards for airport noise


Hard against Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a neighborhood of tightly packed brick homes and basketball hoops is the subject of a debate inside the Federal Aviation Administration with national implications.

At issue in Allwood is a new variety of jet noise first documented by airport engineers in September 1995. They found that, unlike most neighborhoods rimming major airports hit by high-frequency noise from jets passing overhead, homes along Allwood Drive were buffeted by low-frequency blasts from planes taking off.

The finding has significant implications: A $25 million soundproofing program run by the Maryland Aviation Authority with federal assistance is not effective in eliminating jet noise for the 82 homes in the area.

"This is a first," said Michael C. West, the MAA's associate administrator.

Sound engineers are studying the low-frequency thrum resulting from jet takeoffs, which occur every 4 1/2 minutes at BWI and shake the homes along Allwood Drive. They have set up jet simulators, huge concert-style speakers, in the neighborhood to blast two test homes with the chest-thumping noise to see how it differs from the common high-frequency pitch near airports.

"My home and another in the neighborhood are going to be like the guinea pigs," said Harry S. Cascio, who has lived with real jet blasts in the 200 block of Allwood Drive for 25 years.

"The whole house shakes. Windows shake. The noise is so bad you can't hear [anything] if you're talking to somebody."

Within months, the test results will reach the highest levels of the FAA, which has spent $570 million since 1982 helping homeowners across the country block jet noise from their living rooms. More money -- likely more than $100 million -- may be needed if the FAA decides to set health and safety standards for low-frequency noise. None exists now.

The FAA's decision, expected by summer, could have enormous implications -- not only for the 82 Allwood homeowners but for flight-path communities from Los Angeles to Boston.

A strip of split-level homes, Allwood is at the crossroads of politics, public money and property rights.

Peace and property values

For Allwood residents, some of whom have waited more than three years for government aid to soundproof their homes, the issue is a matter of peace and property values.

"This is a big opportunity for me," said Gordon H. Germuth Jr., whose house in the 200 block of Allwood Drive has been fitted with microphones and speakers for sound tests. "I just hope they aren't playing head games with us."

Del. Michael W. Burns, a Glen Burnie Republican who represents the neighborhood, said he is "very surprised that science has taken this long to catch up.

"I think the MAA is sincere about trying to deal with these noise issues. But I don't think they've put a high enough priority on it," he said.

Noise zone

More than 900 homes fall within BWI's 7,500-acre "noise zone," making them eligible for government help to block airport noise. Fifty-four Allwood homes appear eligible for some federal and state money; the owners of 24 have applied.

Since 1990, the MAA has received $10 million in federal grants and set aside about $2 million in state money to do the work. That is supposed to double by the time the program runs its course.

Almost 300 homes in such neighborhoods as Glen Burnie Park and Linthicum have either been soundproofed or sold under a program in which the MAA reimburses homeowners for lost property value. But no help has been given along Allwood Drive, and that may not change.

If the FAA decides against setting low-frequency noise standards, which MAA officials say is a possibility, Allwood residents might not be eligible for any assistance, leaving them with jet noise and dwindling property values.

Costly soundproofing

High-frequency soundproofing, which involves replacing windows, doors and insulation, costs $25,000 per house. Two low-frequency soundproofing methods being tested along Allwood would cost $30,000 per house -- one-third the cost of the average Allwood property.

"I'm trying not to get anyone's expectations up," West said. "There are a number of possibilities. One is that we wouldn't be able to fund the improved soundproofing package."

Said Edward Johnson, who has lived in the 200 block of Allwood Drive for almost 20 years: "They're causing it. I think they should do something to stop it."

For the FAA, the debate involves a lot of money.

More than $100 million in claims could emerge from airport neighborhoods across the country if FAA administrators decide that low-frequency jet noise is a unique problem demanding special attention. Residents near Boston's Logan International Airport, for one, have a stake in the results.

"If they adopt it in one place, they have to adopt it across the country," West said. "This [BWI] would be the first."

The low-frequency noise was documented in September 1995 by BWI engineers studying Allwood Drive. But the story begins before that, in 1988, soon after deregulation of the airline industry.

That year, officials at MAA, a branch of the Maryland Department of Transportation, began redrawing the noise zone surrounding BWI as part of a periodic review.

All property where jet noise averaged more than 65 decibels over 24 hours -- the equivalent of standing 10 feet from a running vacuum cleaner all day -- was included in the noise zone. The agency held 25 community meetings, used computers to study noise patterns and weather conditions, and took into account future airport growth.

The stakes were high: All properties inside the noise zone would be eligible for a share of $80.5 million in government assistance, including programs to relocate mobile home parks, buy land bordering the airport and soundproof nearby schools.

But Allwood was not included in the 11,000-acre zone, although it had been in the 1984 plan. Neighborhood residents immediately appealed the omission to the MAA. They argued that the computer model used to estimate noise patterns had "underpredicted" their neighborhood.

Runway 28R

Allwood Drive sits about 2,000 feet northwest of Runway 28R -- the main strip for an average of 325 jet takeoffs a day. The noise curls toward the homes in deep rumbles, which have reportedly cracked ceilings, caused sleepless nights and depressed property values.

Almost all airport noise is the result of jets passing overhead, which emit a high-frequency screech. But the noise produced by jets throttling up moments before they shoot down 28R unfolds in low-frequency waves.

Put simply, says FAA spokesman Robert R. Ropelewski, "the high-frequency noise is what hurts your ears. The low-frequency is what causes the shaking and rattling."

Allwood residents have been living with it.

"The tail of the planes face toward me, like toward my back deck," Germuth said. "They get revved up. It's not every few hours. It's constantly."

After extensive study following the 1988 updating, West said, "we came to believe that the area was being underpredicted by our model." A new model was developed, which now is the standard across the country.

All 82 Allwood homes eventually were included in the noise zone after the 1993 revision, but the discovery of the low-frequency noise stalled soundproofing applications soon after.

Some homes ineligible

Twenty-eight Allwood homes, a newer development on the street, were not eligible for the homeowner assistance program. In the 1980s, when those homes were being sold, buyers gave up "avigation easements" -- legal rights to the air above their homes -- when they signed the deed. They also gave up the right to sue the FAA, the MAA or anyone else over airport noise.

"We still hear complaints that people didn't know what was going on when they bought the house," West said.

Residents have complained that the soundproofing standards for those new homes approved by the MAA were inadequate. Those standards, which West signed off on, match Anne Arundel County's "thermal-efficiency" measures -- extra insulation, thick windows and other structural additions to keep in heat.

But the specifications are not nearly as stringent as current soundproofing standards. "They are minimum standards, but they do provide a measure of protection," said West.

Said Burns, the state delegate: "Unless something significant is done at the federal level, I don't see how those easements can stand." He said the General Assembly would likely take up the issue, perhaps during the session that starts next month.

Politically charged

The issue has always been politically charged.

The General Assembly, which is responsible for paying 20 percent of the homeowner assistance costs, has been looking for ways to shrink the program since the late 1980s.

"We had a lot of people moving in next to the airport and then complaining it was noisy," said former state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Glen Burnie Democrat who sponsored much of the airport noise legislation. "It's like moving next to a dump and wondering why you smell trash."

In 1989, the General Assembly passed legislation directing the MAA to shrink the noise zone from 11,000 acres to 8,000 over the next four years even as the airport was expanding. Four years later, the MAA approved the current 7,500-acre noise zone that will be reviewed again next year.

The noise zone was shrunk partly as a result of new, quieter airplanes. Those models now account for 80 percent of the flights in and out of BWI.

But Allwood residents say the shrinking zone does not mean shrinking noise in their neighborhood. In the spring, the test results will be forwarded to the FAA in Washington, but residents have little hope for the result.

"Here we are being pushed in the same clammy hole again," said Robert B. Antlitz, a neighborhood resident for 24 years. "They're coming down here doing tests. But the rub is whichever one is the cheapest, that's the one they're going to offer to the people in Allwood."

Said West: "It's a decision that will be made in [FAA] headquarters and will be discussed by a lot of people. Our worst fear is that they will say they can't participate until the airline industry knows more."

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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