BWI Neighbors Get a Say -- Finally

July 10, 1992

Life is hard for Anne Arundel residents who live in Baltimore-Washington International Airport's "noise zone." The Maryland Aviation Administration only made it harder by spending three years trying to deny them their right to complain.

This week, at long last, a state transportation review board began considering the BWI neighbors' appeal of the 1988 noise control plan, which included some major, unpopular changes. The zone -- the area where noise from jets may exceed 65 decibels -- was enlarged from 8,600 to 12,000 acres. Flight paths were altered. Earthen noise barriers were eliminated.

Residents suspect the state agency used the plan to prepare for airport expansion, a prospect they dread but which the rest of Maryland ought to welcome. BWI plays a critical role in Maryland's economy; if the airport grows, so does prosperity.

Still, the people who live near BWI have a right to know when the state decides it wants to make changes that will profoundly affect their lives and livelihoods. In 1988, BWI officials did hold a public hearing, but afterward changed the flight paths and enlarged the noise zone as set out in the original plan. They never held a second hearing for citizen input. When area residents saw that the final, approved plan bore little resemblance to the one that BWI originally presented, they appealed to a state transportation board.

But airport officials balked, arguing that the board, which only hears appeals of regulations, lacked jurisdiction because the noise abatement program is an "internal management tool," not a regulation. The courts, unswayed by this feeble argument, ordered the transportation board to hear the appeal.

At this point, the board's decision is virtually meaningless. Under state law, BWI must reduce the noise zone to 8,600 acres next year anyway, a goal it hopes to reach by encouraging air carriers to use newer, quieter planes. The most that area residents have to gain through this appeal is the satisfaction of finally having their say.

Why did the aviation administration want to block the appeal? It's a puzzling question, especially considering that board members are picked by the governor and are represented by the attorney general, who also represents the airport. Whatever its reasons, state transportation officials were wrong to deny these citizens a means to protest. As the airport continues to grow and change, the state ought to treat its neighbors with more sensitivity. After all, they put up with the nuisance of living next to BWI so the rest of the state can prosper.

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