Sound Solutions? Homes in Burlington Airport flight path may not get relief for years

WCAX, December 9, 2021 } by Dom Amato
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – A first-of-its-kind project is underway to reduce the noise from commercial air traffic at the Burlington airport and the extremely loud F-35 fighter jets that have angered and frustrated many in the flight path. Acoustical testing will help determine the first handful of homes to get sound insulation.

The Voluntary Residential Sound Insulation Program (RSIP) includes 2,627 potentially eligible single, and multi-family homes in South Burlington, Winooski, Colchester, Burlington and Williston. Properties are being prioritized by outdoor noise level, beginning with the loudest homes on the cities Noise Exposure Map, and working outwards. What municipality the homes are in also plays a factor, so each community has equal representation.

23 properties were identified for the pilot project, which kicked-off this week. 20 in South Burlington, and 3 in Winooski. Officials say many of the homes part of the pilot project are in, or on the cusp of the 70+ DNL region of the noise exposure map. DNL is the average, annual sound levels over a 24 hour period. Data from a new sound monitoring device outside the Chamberlin School in South Burlington shows noise events can reach as high as 95 decibels on some days, loud enough to adversely impact human health.

Laddin Walsh, who was selected as part of the pilot project, lives on Kirby Road and says he’s used to the F-35′s interrupting part of his morning.

During our interview, we heard Walsh’s glass dishes shake as the F-35′s left the runway less than a mile away, but the sound didn’t last long. “If you’re indoors, it’s five or six minutes of this. They take off, then they’re gone,” Walsh said.

Just a few doors down on Kirby Road, Lynn Kynoch shares the same sentiment. “Planes fly over for what, two seconds or whatever, then the noise is gone and they’re done,” she said.

Many who live in the neighborhood either grew up here or knew what they signed up for when they moved to homes near the airport. But there’s no denying the noise from the F-35s. “They’re loud, like when they go over, the whole house rattles,” Kynoch said.

To determine if homeowners are eligible for the RSIP, acoustical testing needs to be completed. As part of the test to determine a home’s interior noise level, a loud speaker is set up outside the home, and artificial noise, that simulates the jet sound, is transmitted to the exterior of the home. If the sound is 45 decibels or louder inside the home, it’s eligible for a full treatment package. That includes new, thicker, windows and doors in rooms where you would spend the most time, according to the FAA, like living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. Bathrooms, garages, sunrooms, enclosed porches are not eligible. In some cases, homes could also receive mechanical upgrades, like new insulation, ventilation systems, or central A/C, to keep the windows closed during the summer, and the sound out.

The goal, and a requirement from the FAA, is to reduce the interior noise levels by 5 decibels, and below 45 DNL, or what’s described as typical household noise. There is no mitigation effort for the sound, if people are outside.

“If I’m outside raking leaves, I’ll have to stop and cover my ears because it’s really loud,” Walsh said.

Kynoch and Walsh hope they’re selected to be among the first 10 homes to get sound insulation though the pilot project. The process is likely to take more than a year of testing, designing, and construction. The plan is to expand the RISP to 50 more homes next year, and continue it for the years to come. Grants have to be applied for by the airport, with money coming from the FAA. It costs around $5 million annually, 90% is picked up by the government, and the city is responsible for 10%. RSIP is estimated to cost $85.5 million dollars in total, if 100% of homes participate. Right now, planners believe it could take 26 years, to get through more than 2,600 impacted homes.

“It’s too little and it’s going to be too late,” said Robert Ackland, who lives in Winooski, where more than half of the homes on the sound map are located. “The windows rattle, I can feel it. You actually feel it in your bones it’s that loud.”

Ackland’s home sits just outside of the 65 DNL on the sound map, meaning he would not be eligible for the RSIP. But that could change. The city has committed to a new sound map to be done next year, now that the F-35′s are flying on a more consistent schedule. The map was updated in 2019 when the jets arrived, and the RSIP is currently relying on a projected noise map for 2023. The FAA requires a new map to be drawn every 5 years.

There are other options for homes that are within the impacted areas on the noise map, but are not eligible for the RSIP. Secondary treatments may be available like weatherization methods, but the cities Noise Mitigation Implementation Plan does offer other solutions, if you’re looking to sell your home.

With no end to the guard mission likely, officials say sound insulation is the best bet. “We’re going to move as quickly, as fast, and certainly as much federal funding as we possibly can get to make sure that we add these infrastructure improvements to these communities as quickly as possible,” said Interim Director of the Burlington Airport, Nic Longo.