Jury To Decide: Did Bwi Deceive Homebuyers In Noise Zone?

Citing Airport's 'Negligence,' 10 Families Seek Damages

October 06, 1991|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

A Circuit Court jury will decide if 10 families were deceived by Baltimore-Washington International Airport officials more than a decade ago when they bought homes in Glen Burnie near an airport runway.

The families filed suit against the airport in 1986, claiming the state never told them their houses were within a designated noise zone. The withholding of that information created a public nuisance that had the effect of condemning their land, reducing property values and creating health problems, they claim.

The suit says the frequent roar of airplane engines over their homes -- about the decibel level of a downtown city street -- caused them health problems and high stress. Three residents testified the noise drove them to attempt suicide.

The families are seeking tens ofthousands of dollars each, saying they have suffered for years because of a negligent airport. All but two of the families have moved.

The lawyers for BWI say the residents have built their case on a series of exaggerations: Planes never flew low enough for people to count the number of rivets or see silhouettes of the passengers.

The families, BWI's lawyers say, had personal problems -- such as infidelity, fatal car accidents and marriage problems -- that caused more stress than low-flying planes.

"We told you from the beginning that we were not saying there is no noise," said Charles Martinez, the airport's lawyer. "There is noise. Of course there is noise. But the extent of noise is not what the plaintiffs would have you believe."

The 12-member jury will have to sift through hundreds of exhibits and two weeks of testimony from doctors, real estate appraisers and engineers specializing in the science of noise.

"This case does have some worldwide importance to it," Joseph A. Miklasz, the attorney representing some of the families, told the jury. "As literary searches aredone about noise, this case will always pop up."

The families allbought their homes in the Brookfield North neighborhood in the late 1970s, around the same time the state certified the 12,100-acre noisezone.

The state admits it didn't tell them their homes in the were within the 65-decibel average daily noise reading as required by the noise abatement plan, but says that's because the building permits were issued before the noise zone was certified in September 1976.

Miklasz noted during his closing arguments Friday that one doctor compared living near BWI to "being in a concentration camp," in that even years after the people have moved away from BWI, just thinking about the planes "causes stress to flare up.

" 'My kids know this,' "Miklasz quoted the doctor as saying. " 'If I get a call out of a patient in the middle of the night, my kids go around the house the nextday saying, 'Dad didn't sleep last night, lay low.' '

"Imagine what that does to a person who has to endure that every day of his lifefor seven years."

Phil O'Shaushnessy, another lawyer representingsome of the families, said BWI officials expanded the airport in violation of its own noise abatement recommendations.

He said the state's 1974 draft of the noise zone regulations required officials to issue a noise warning to home buyers about potential hazards.

"Theysay, 'You visited the property, didn't you see the airport?' " O'Shaushnessy said. "For this reason, a noise warning is particularly mentioned as a safeguard."

But Martinez, arguing for the state, said the case had been blown out of proportion, noting that one woman said she could hold up a cup of coffee and have it picked up by passengerson the planes.

"You are not supposed to be tongue-in-cheek," Martinez said. "You are supposed to come in and take an oath and be factual, not dress it up. We thought that if we showed you that was utterly ridiculous it would mean something."

Martinez disputed claims that the planes flew directly over the homes. "We didn't fly over thesepeople's houses and we didn't fly at ridiculously low altitudes as they suggest."

He also noted that several of the residents had personal problems that could have aggravated stress.

One woman, Martinez said, testified that her stress symptoms disappeared after moving away, while other witnesses said their stress levels remained high.

"We take no pleasure with that," Martinez said. "We just say to youthat there are other things that might cause them stress. You can't blame it all on the airport. We're an easy target. We're large. It's easy to take a shot and point a finger at us."

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