Homeowners making noise about Rt. 32 County, Rouse Co. get earful

blueprint note was only warning

Lots cross 65-decibel line

Builders say buyers signed contracts

buffers still demanded

November 01, 1998|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials allowed the Rouse Co. to develop nearly 30 lots in Columbia's River Hill village in areas near Route ,, 32 where the noise was forecast to exceed acceptable levels, leaving future homeowners with nothing more than a note on a blueprint as a warning.

At least 19 lots on the north side of the four-lane highway and another nine to the south -- where residents have complained for years about the sound of traffic -- are either bisected by or located on the wrong side of an invisible line marking the county's 65-decibel threshold for noise.

Although county Planning and Zoning officials initially told the Rouse Co.'s development arm during project review between 1992 and 1994 that it would have to relocate certain lots or install sound mitigating devices, the county ultimately backed off and little was done by the developer of the lots or the builders who constructed the houses.

The county's role in the noise issue comes to light in county and state documents on construction of the road, which opened to traffic in 1996, and surrounding homes. Those documents, reviewed by The Sun, buttress the angry complaints of residents that government could have done more to protect them.

One resident has spent $4,000 soundproofing a bedroom, another has all but given up use of an enclosed deck, and others say the noise undermines the quality of life they thought came with houses costing $200,000 or more in Columbia's newest village.

The Sun's findings call into question the degree of disclosure that builders, developers and county officials provide to people making what may be the most expensive -- and important -- purchase of their lives.

"I don't know if any disclosure really is enough for any homebuyer," said County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a Democrat who represents River Hill. "If there is a better way to highlight that issue [of noise], let's hear it."

Instead of requiring that all the lots in the high-noise zone be reconfigured, or walls or earthen berms be constructed to protect them, Planning and Zoning and Public Works officials required Howard Research and Development Corp., a division of Rouse, to do only this: include an explanatory note on the final record plat showing where the noise line encroached on the lots.

A record plat, a public document kept on file at the Department Planning and Zoning, is a blueprint that shows nearby roads, property elevations, environmental features such as streams and the outline of houses. The note explains that the 65-decibel noise level represents "the average sound level during the single noisiest one-hour period of vehicular traffic during a typical day" based on the State Highway Administration's estimate of Route 32 traffic for 2015.

Homebuyers were expected to review the record plat before they purchased a home.

"The key was to provide a public notice of the concern for the noise," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of Planning and Zoning, who added that the county can go only so far in terms of public disclosure.

Rutter said it was not practical for Howard Research and Development to build a wall or berm in certain areas because of the steep topography or a wetland.

Asked why the lots were not reconfigured, Rutter replied, "You can only eliminate so much development before you start to [eliminate] a reasonable use of the property. You hit a point where it's just a matter of losing lots."

'Lack of accountability'

The noise problem, which residents say has begun to affect property values, is likely to get worse after the state expands a section of Route 32 west of River Hill from two lanes to four in the next few years. The only proposed solution is a plan by the state, county and Howard Research and Development to spend $50,000 on evergreens that would provide primarily a visual buffer.

Frustrated by what he calls a "lack of accountability," River Hill resident Bill Bellamy wrote last week to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, accusing the county of "gross mismanagement."

Bellamy, whose house on Morning Time Lane falls outside the noise line, has asked that a public hearing be held and mitigation devices -- other than trees -- be installed along the roadway. The county and possibly Howard Research and Development should pay for them, he said.

Ecker said Friday he was reviewing the allegations.

It doesn't seem likely that the builders or developer will do more soon.

Each party is pointing fingers at the other in what has become a complex and highly emotional case: Residents fault the builders for not explicitly warning them about the noise line, and builders fault the residents for not reading the plans more carefully.

One builder, the Mark Building Co., which built and sold several homes bisected by the noise line, provided The Sun with a copy of its site development plan containing the "65 Decibel Note" and the contract signed by buyers, which includes a clause saying they had read and approved the plan.

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