Plain as the ear on their face

Howard County: Officials should not approve homes so close to a highway when hearing is threatened.

April 22, 1999

BUYER BEWARE certainly applies better to humans than bog turtles. But if government forbids construction in wetlands partly because it would harm the creatures there, why does it approve construction of homes beside highways when it has proof the noise could injure the residents?

Howard County erred in approving new homes so close to Route 100 the deeds include a warning: Living there "may result in hearing impairment," records say.

Like "rubberneckers" gawking at an accident, or one about to happen, county officials merely express amazement that the builder of a subdivision called Brampton Hills is asking $270,000 for homes on lots that exceed 65 decibels. That's the cutoff at which many jurisdictions disallow construction or require corrective steps. When government restricts building in a flood plain or forbids a landlord from using lead paint, its approach isn't "if someone wants to live there, that's their business." Neither should the county be cavalier about an evident noise danger.

Howard officials concluded it would be a "hardship" to require an earthen berm to deflect sound. They require developers to fund roads and schools to accommodate projects, but a mound of earth is too much to ask? As long as the residents don't spend too much time outside, they should be safe, officials seem to say.

Last fall, Columbia residents confronted politicians about noise from Route 32. The state and county agreed to spend $50,000 to plant trees -- an ineffectual buffer, they admitted, but the best they could do. Meanwhile, Maryland has spent $100 million in the past decade erecting extensive "sound barriers" along major highways.

Some conflicts between noise and neighborhoods in a growing metropolitan area are inevitable and unavoidable, but government shouldn't allow new residences on property that ensures a problem from the start.

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