Thursday, September 25, 2003

Noise makes neighbors speak up

Residents complain I-71's too loud, but Blue Ash, state wash their hands

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Stephanie Stoller, a Blue Ash councilwoman, gestures where a sound barrier ends along I-71, near the Kenridge area of Blue Ash.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
BLUE ASH - After a decade of living on Kenridge Avenue, Ed Capannari and his family want out.

They love their neighbors. They love their house.

They hate the noise in their backyard.

The roar of trucks rumbling down Interstate 71 near Pfeiffer Road and the ever-present static hum from traffic bouncing like a boomerang off sound barrier walls along the highway are driving them away.

While city leaders and officials from the Ohio Department of Transportation are in a standoff over who should quiet the clamor in the Kenridge subdivision, the Capannaris feel caught in the middle.

How sound walls work
"That's how you feel," says Capannari, who, with his wife, Martha, is looking for another house for their family of four. "You're kind of stuck."

Blue Ash officials, who have long opposed sound walls because they think they are unsightly and ineffective, have about washed their hands of the noise problem in Kenridge, where houses are valued at $200,000 or more.

Recently, they rejected a proposal that would pay the University of Cincinnati $17,000 for a study to see what can be done to reduce the noise. While a councilwoman who lives in the neighborhood has pushed her colleagues to take action, city leaders say it's the state's responsibility to muffle the noise - it's coming from their road and bouncing off their walls on the east side of the interstate into Kenridge to the west.

"There's not a whole lot Blue Ash can do about it. ODOT does not want to put a wall up. Blue Ash cannot get into the state right of way," City Manager Marvin Thompson says.

But, state officials say the overall noise level in Kenridge is below what they would consider a problem they are obligated to fix, and they've done all they intend to do.

Problems started about eight years ago when Blue Ash and Montgomery officials approved a plan to eliminate sound walls along that portion of I-71. Three office buildings proposed on land between the interstate and Kenridge were supposed to buffer the neighborhood from the road noise, Thompson says. Kenridge sits just over the border from Montgomery.

But the property was eventually sold and the development ended up as only a single building - TriHealth Fitness & Health Pavilion, which opened in 1997, three years after the walls were built. The state erected sound walls on land adjoining the TriHealth property, but only a 12-foot privacy fence erected by TriHealth separates the neighborhood from the business and the road noise. Residents say the fence does little to soften the noise.

"We design based upon what we are told, and if that changes, there's nothing we can do about it," says Brian Cunningham, spokesman for ODOT.

Keith Smith, an environmental engineer who oversees ODOT projects in Hamilton County, says Kenridge's problems aren't severe enough to merit state action. Tests on sound levels in Kenridge conducted at least twice in the last two years showed decibels to be in the upper 50s.

The state would consider noise abatement measures if readings hit 67 decibels - the minimum level at which the federal government requires noise barriers. That's the intensity of a vacuum cleaner running 10 feet away or a freight train at 100 feet. According to widely accepted decibel standards, the noise Smith measured in Kenridge is moderate, about the level of a normal conversation.

Smith says he did not go into the backyards of the homes on Kenridge to take readings because he did not have permission, but measured the noise from several spots along the street. Each measurement averaged the noise in a 10-minute period.

"I got more background noise from the geese and the airplanes than I did from the road," Smith says.

But Councilwoman Stephanie Stoller, a Kenridge resident who has been hounding ODOT for at least two years to do something about the noise, questioned whether the state's decibel level limits are set too high. "I can understand that in the daytime," she said of the 67 decibels. "But, shouldn't it be lower in the night time?"

Stoller says the noise forces her to sleep with her windows shut, no matter the time of year. Sometimes it sounds like trucks are driving right through her bedroom. Other times, it's quiet. Problems seem to be exacerbated by shifts in wind direction.

Lois Silber has lived on Bomark Court for 34 years. Traffic noise was always apparent in the neighborhood, she says, but "once the walls went up, we were worse off."

Thompson said the "obvious" solution would be for ODOT to erect another sound wall close to the road on the west side of the highway. Planting trees also might help, but that would take years for them to grow enough to effectively absorb some of the noise, he said. Publications by the Federal Highway Administration say that it would take 100 feet of dense and tall vegetation to reduce noise by five decibels.

"I think the great majority on council, if not all of them, would prefer that the walls just come down because they have created more of a nuisance," Thompson said. Blue Ash recently asked the state not to erect sound walls along the city's stretch of I-275 being improved.

TriHealth officials say they wouldn't be in favor of any walls in front of their fitness club.

"The visibility of the facility is one of the many facets of what makes that a very successful and popular health and fitness center," spokesman Joe Kelley said.

So the Capannaris family searches for another home in another neighborhood - this time with a keener ear for potential trouble.

"Before we even get out of the car, we turn the car off," Capannari says. "We wind down the windows and listen to see how noisy or quiet it is."


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