Board rules against group battling airport noise

December 26, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

A five-year battle by an activist group railing against noisy jets at Baltimore-Washington International Airport has ended in defeat in front of an administrative hearing board, but the head of the group vowed yesterday to appeal the case in court.

The Maryland Department of Transportation Board of Review has ruled in a 76-page opinion that the airport's Noise Abatement Plan fulfills a 1974 law by setting up programs to mitigate noise around affected residences.

The group, the Airport Coordinating Team, had contended the ** state's Noise Abatement Plan certified in 1988 is flawed because it artificially expanded the size of the "noise zone" -- an area around the airport deemed too noisy for homes -- to pave the way for airport expansion.

ACT argued the law suggested the state could reduce noise by cutting back operations -- an option it says airport officials have never considered. The board agreed with the state, however, that airport noise is being reduced through other means.

"The board understands the desire of appellants and their witnesses to decrease noise levels to those of earlier years," the board's chairman, Elmer E. Horsey, wrote. "However, a reading of the statute demonstrates that the legislature never required the Maryland Aviation Administration to flatly reduce noise levels."

Mr. Horsey wrote that programs the state has established, such as soundproofing homes most affected by noise, encouraging airlines to use quieter aircraft and altering take-off patterns, are sufficient abatement procedures.

Being required to reduce noise levels every year, the opinion says, "could eventually require the airport to be closed down."

But Dennis Stevens, president of ACT, which first challenged the abatement plan in 1988, called that statement "absurd" and said the group plans to appeal in Circuit Court.

"They look upon noise abatement in two ways: buying houses and altering flight paths," Mr. Stevens said. "They are not interested in affecting the airline industry's ability to use this airport."

It took Mr. Stevens' group three years and a Circuit Court hearing just to get the review board to hear the case.

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 to have their homes bought by the state and relocate or have soundproofing installed.

ACT has complained that the airport enlarged the size of the zone in 1988 after holding a series of public hearings, but without going back to the public with the proposed changes. The zone now encompasses 12,100 acres, but will be reduced to 7,500 as of Thursday.

The group challenged the noise zone, but the review board refused to hear the case. Circuit Court Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr., in 1990, ordered the board to hold hearings.

Mr. Stevens said he is not surprised by the board's decision, but is charging a conflict of interest in that lawyers from the state attorney general's office represented both the review board and the state-owned airport.

"Basically, it's a decision by the attorney general's office," he said. "It may have the board's name on it, but I have to put two and two together. It's one office that sits on both sides of the issue."

Mr. Stevens called it particularly disturbing that the board's lawyer, Cathy Orleman, and the lawyer who represented the airport in the case, Louisa Goldstein, are working together on a separate case defending BWI.

Ms. Orleman said the attorney general's office represents all state agencies and appointed boards, but stressed there is no conflict because she and Ms. Goldstein never discussed the ACT case.

"There is a Chinese wall between us," Ms. Orleman said Thursday. "The attorney general does represent the state and all of its various units. The matters are absolutely not discussed."

Mr. Stevens said the opinion on noise abatement fits what airport officials have been saying for years -- that noise mitigation can be accomplished by shifting flight patterns and relocating residents.

Airport officials refused requests for interviews about the ruling on Thursday, but they did release a short statement expressing their pleasure with the opinion.

"The board's decision reinforces what the MAA's approach is regarding noise abatement efforts at Baltimore-Washington International Airport," the statement says. "We maintain that noise abatement is more than reducing noise levels."

The review board also ruled that ACT did not have standing, or legal justification to bring a case, because members of the group who testified, including Mr. Stevens, were not affected by the changes made to the noise zone in 1988.

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