Road noise affects rules Counties change land-use policies for developers

'A tremendous racket'

No state-funded barriers for homes built after highways

July 13, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The 18-wheelers shake the walls of Ron Bowers' house as they roar north on Interstate 83 near Lutherville. "There is a tremendous racket," said Bowers, president of Longford North Improvement Association.

But the State Highway Administration steadfastly refuses to build sound barriers in Bowers' Baltimore County neighborhood -- or any other built after the roads were constructed.

The policy has local officials throughout the state scrambling to protect future homeowners from highway noise, at a time when builders are clamoring for attractive land that happens to lie close to major roadways.

The result is a forest of local land-use policies, typically requiring developers to build away from the highway, build their own sound barriers or take other steps to protect housing developments from noise.

"We have all these leftover pieces of land," said Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller. "It was not envisioned that they would be developed. They appear to be little wooded areas. All of a sudden it's a valuable piece."

The local land-use policies involving highway noise were developed at the urging of the state, which spends millions of dollars to build sound barriers throughout Maryland, including along Interstate 695 in Baltimore County and U.S. 50 in Anne Arundel County.

Baltimore County is weighing rules that would require a developer to build fences or other buffers if highway noise on the property exceeds federal standards of 65 decibels. If the noise is greater than 75 decibels, the project could not be built.

Anne Arundel County recently adopted an ordinance requiring building setbacks ranging from 190 feet to 640 feet along major roadways unless the developer can prove the sound on the property is less than 66 decibels.

In Howard County, developers must conduct noise studies to prove that their projects are outside a boundary where highway noise exceeds federal guidelines.

The troublesome mix of neighborhoods and noise results from a scarcity of land that can be developed.

"They are developing parcels that might have been bypassed the first time through," said Cindy Hamilton, chief of the Howard Department of Planning and Zoning's land development division.

But the State Highway Administration, having spent more than $100 million to build sound barriers along roads, concluded that it couldn't keep building the expensive walls. In December 1996, the state issued a new policy, laying out the conditions communities must meet to qualify for noise walls.

Under the new policy, barriers will not be placed along existing roads unless the local jurisdiction pays 20 percent of the cost of the barriers and the locality has regulations to control future construction along the highways.

While counties rarely deny development of a parcel solely because of excessive highway noise, local regulations can make it difficult for some projects to proceed.

Near White Marsh, the developers of Putty Hill Woods are reviewing a May ruling by a Baltimore County zoning commissioner requiring them to build sound barriers to shield their proposed housing development.

The developers want to build 12 duplexes and five single-family houses on a 4-acre parcel surrounded by Putty Hill Avenue, the Baltimore Beltway and Route 43. But noise studies have recorded readings between 65 and 75 decibels -- a level the county believes requires mitigation.

Developers fear the cost of barriers will doom the project. "It would be a tremendous financial loss," said Kirwan Dewan, a partner in the firm that hopes to develop the property.

In another Baltimore County case, the developer of Greenspring Overlook was allowed to build his townhouse development off Interstate 795 in Owings Mills, although several houses had to be reconfigured.

Zoning Commissioner Lawrence Schmidt, in effect, said the buyer should beware when purchasing a home so close to the highway. "Any potential resident will be hard-pressed to validly complain of noise when that condition clearly existed prior to their home purchase," he wrote.

Developer Morris Wolf said he bought the property because of its proximity to Owings Mills and a good road system. Although the county required no sound barriers, it did require the builder to move some sites to reduce noise.

Meanwhile, with the state urging them to take action to prevent more developments along the highways, Baltimore County officials plan to propose noise regulations to the planning board this fall.

But the changes will come too late for Bowers, who hopes to fight the state's decision not to build sound barriers in his community. Longford residents argue that I-83 has changed extensively since their homes were built 30 years ago and that their community is as qualified as others that have received sound barriers.

The state says that while the road was widened after the houses were built, the work was done before federal law required states to retrofit roads with sound barriers.

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