Sound and fury Highway noise: Restrictions on housing developments necessary to protect residents' health and welfare.

July 17, 1998

IT'S HARD to imagine why anyone would choose to buy a vTC home on property that backs up to a major highway, but people are doing just that, especially as developable land in the suburbs becomes more scarce.

State and federal officials reasonably argue that buyers should know what they're getting into. Thus, they will not pay (at $1.85 million a mile) for neighborhood sound barriers if the roads existed before the houses were constructed -- unless the roads have been widened.

That leaves local governments -- faced with residents who want noise relief once they have moved in -- imposing or contemplating restrictions on developers. Baltimore County is considering asking developers to build fences or other buffers if highway noise exceeds federal standards of 65 decibels and prohibiting projects in areas where noise exceeds 75 decibels.

Such restrictions -- which can include increased setbacks, reconfiguration of lots and construction of berms or fences -- add to building costs; some developers say such rules amount to taking their land. But government has a right -- indeed, an obligation -- to regulate land use for the purpose of protecting the environment and the general health and welfare.

Excessive noise is a public health issue. Asking developers to remediate it is no different than requiring them to manage stormwater runoff or refrain from disturbing wetlands. Experience in Montgomery County, which has required noise mitigation for 20 years, shows that noise abatement pays off for developers by making projects more attractive to buyers.

Regulations will not help residents of existing homes. Most owners should have known better, but there are exceptions.

Longford, near Lutherville, was built after the Beltway but before a major widening in 1973. Federal law obligates states to pay for sound barriers in communities impacted by roads that have undergone substantial change -- but only since 1976. Maryland officials ought to come up with their own program to help such residents.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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