April 02, 1993

When Bill Hathaway relaxes on the deck of his home outside Annapolis, he hears a gentle stream in the background. The only problem is, Mr. Hathaway doesn't live near a stream. He lives near U.S. Route 50-301. And that "whoosh" he hears is from traffic on the highway. He imagines it's something more soothing, he told Sun reporter JoAnna Daemmrich, so he doesn't lose his mind.

Some people would empathize with Mr. Hathaway and his neighbors in Heritage Harbour, who helped convince state officials to spend up to $3 million to erect barriers to muffle the highway noise. Many other people, however, may feel only scorn. People who buy homes next to highways should expect to hear && cars, right? What would they expect on the main route between Annapolis and Washington, D.C.?

Such a response isn't without merit, but people shouldn't react too harshly to the folks at Heritage Harbor. They did buy near a highway, but that highway has changed dramatically over just a few years. Even as late as the mid-'80s, Route 50 reflected the long-sleepy nature of the relationship between Maryland's capital and the nation's capital. There were plenty of trees along the highway, even in the wide, grassy median. But as the highway expanded from four to six lanes, it became a raceway -- or at least a crawl-way -- to the booming job center in and around D.C.

The Heritage Harbor homeowners aren't the only ones to have conditions change. The U.S. government and Baltimore County last fall agreed to split the $26 million cost of erecting more noise barriers along the Beltway. The state also chipped in $75,000 to help a Jewish school buy air-conditioners to blot out noise from the highways that have grown around it over 25 years. Noise walls are increasingly evident throughout the East Coast.

That's not to say that government's role is always to bail out people who buy property and later find the surroundings undesirable. Part of the problem lies in the property-buying process, in which people typically shop for homes on weekends, then discover that life during the workweek in their new abodes doesn't sound -- or perhaps if near a factory, smell -- so good.

But when government has taken action that aggravates a residential nuisance, it's good to see government willing to soften the blow.

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