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Villagers question rise in airport noise

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The “deafening” and “brain rattling” sensation of an F-16 jet veering near town on a training mission is, some villagers say, an “assault on the nervous system”— an inescapable sensation that “penetrates the body” and sometimes rattles windows.

Other villagers find the occasional low flyover to be a mere annoyance, or even a curiosity to count with the kids.

No matter what villagers think of it, local F-16 air traffic would have ended in 2010, due to the upcoming BRAC-related relocation of the American Air Force jets at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

However, an opportunity to train foreign pilots has instead doubled the number of F-16 jets currently flying from the base. The increased noise from this military air traffic is significant enough to allow the airport to access federal funds to purchase residential properties near the airport.

At issue for the 40 or so residents actively opposing the jets is both the noise they cause, and the lack of communication the airport has had with the community about the increase in traffic. While a study on the effects of jet noise completed by the airport 16 years ago involved both residents of Yellow Springs and those living near the airport, a 2006 update of that study did not. This situation prompts some villagers to believe that officials took their duties to communicate with Yellow Springs, the airport’s closest and most densely populated neighbor, too lightly.

Approximately 150 village residents have signed a petition protesting local jet noise. The group has held one public meeting, and has about 15 people actively researching noise and policy issues.

Airport use in high demand

The Springfield-Beckley airport has been host to military training pilots for several decades, but despite complaints from some neighbors, the flight activity increased recently due to a new contract the airport has fulfilled.

The Ohio Air National Guard (OANG) is a tenant at the airport, located two to three miles northeast of Yellow Springs. While BRAC ends American F-16 activity at the base, OANG will continue to provide ground mission, intelligence and administrative services from the base.

“Our interest is to maintain the 300 jobs associated with the flying mission,” Colonel Mike Roberts, commander of the 178th Fighter Wing, said in a recent interview.

To keep these flight-related jobs, OANG is training foreign pilots through a foreign military sales contract with the Royal Netherlands Air Force, worth nearly $200 million, according to a military press release. The contract brings an additional 16 Dutch jets to the base, and approximately 10 Dutch staff. Currently, Roberts estimates 24 jets are flown each day as part of the training mission, resulting in 48 daily over-flights for the surrounding area.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force will continue to be trained at the base for the next eight to nine years, Roberts said. To operate at full capacity, OANG seeks an additional contract to train foreign pilots. Though discussions have taken place with Greece, Portugal and Singapore, according to Roberts, Singapore is the only nation still considering training with OANG at the Springfield airport. The other nations have declined, he said.

In total, OANG employs just over 1,300 locally, with a yearly payroll of just under $69 million dollars. Employees are scattered throughout Ohio, with 277 living in Clark County, 215 in Montgomery County, and 191 in Greene County.

Springfield OANG estimates it has a total contribution to the area economy of nearly $110 million dollars when factoring in contracted services and indirect job creation. And while the U.S. military does spend money to cover the up-front costs of its foreign contracts, those costs are detailed and billed back to the contracted nation quarterly.

“No American tax dollars are spent on the Dutch mission,” Roberts said.

However, the airport is seeking federal funds to purchase eight properties surrounding the base, according to Elizabeth Corry, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson for the Great Lakes region.

These properties are eligible for purchase because increased F-16 traffic has intensified the level of noise and expanded the area affected by it, also known as the airport’s “noise contour,” according to the 2006 study.

The City of Springfield, which owns and operates the airport, has been in contact with two of the eight property owners, but has not yet approached the FAA for funding. “First the city has to come to a negotiated agreement for fair market value,” Corry said.

F-16 flight patterns

Officially, jet pilots are not supposed to fly over Yellow Springs, but certain conditions require them to.

The village is the most densely populated area affected by F-16 jet traffic from the Springfield OANG, Roberts said. In fact, the village is directly aligned with the center of the airport’s only runway that accommodates F-16s, putting the village directly in the flight path of the military aircraft.

The runway construction is predetermined by the wind patterns in southwest Ohio, according to descriptions made by Roberts over a series of maps. F-16s must take off and land into the wind, circling the airport once if necessary. And the 2006 study states that pilots will use the runway aimed toward Yellow Springs, in order to avoid the residences and churches northeast of the airport.

But the village is a “do not over-fly location,” Roberts said, so OANG requires pilots to take steps during takeoff and landing to minimize the effects of noise on the community. Pilots bank to the right upon takeoff until they are past the village limits, and avoid the village by delaying lining up their aircraft with the runway until later in the landing approach, he said. Still, OANG recognizes multiple causes for direct flyovers.

“We do our best to avoid over-flying, but at night time and in bad weather, that is a very uncomfortable thing to do,” he said. “Inexperienced pilots will cheat a little bit, and try to get lined up on the runway a little earlier.”

When cloud cover is thick enough to prevent a pilot from seeing the runway, pilots use radio signals and magnetic headings, or compass readings, to line up with the runway at a distance of 10 miles out. This instrument approach requires pilots to fly over the village, he said, and also accounts for why the large, less-navigable cargo C-5 aircraft from Wright-Patt Air Force Base always fly directly over the village.

“Noise is an issue, we know that, and we do our best to mitigate and minimize the impact on local communities, predominately Yellow Springs,” Roberts said.

A changing local soundscape

Noise, considered to be any unwanted sound, is recognized by the international community as a public health threat that deserves further scientific study and increased policy management. Jet noise is sound pressure, created by both the mechanical function of a jet’s engine and by the collision of high-velocity exhaust fumes with the surrounding air.

In policy-making, and most instances of scientific research, noise is averaged into a 24-hour calculation, called a Day-Night Average Sound Level, or DNL. Multiple agencies, including the FAA, have accepted a DNL of 65 decibels as the standard for policy making. Airports are required to keep DNL at or below 65 decibels in residential areas.

Roberts said OANG is operating within this averaged 65-decibel level guideline. But this “doesn’t mean that sound level will never exceed the 65 decibel line,” he said, a fact charted by community members who have been documenting sound levels during individual flyovers over the last year that range between 80 and 106 decibels.

While policymakers do not officially recognize these individual instances of noise, community members maintain that each of these sound events is a very real experience, one that impacts their health and disrupts daily activities in their home environments.

Regulatory agencies consider any sound above 60 decibels to cause annoyance for most people. Sustained sound over 80 decibels can cause hearing loss over a lifetime, according to the World Heath Organization, while impulse sounds of 140 decibels can cause hearing loss. Normal speech is considered to be about 50 decibels, a blender crushing ice results in 83 to 85 decibels, and an ambulance siren at 100 feet is 100 decibels, according to FAA documents.

A resident of the north end of town, Theresa Sapunar is one of many villagers who have used a handheld device to measure sound levels during a jet flyover. In August of 2009, she recorded seven flyovers from 8:49 a.m. to 10:35 a.m. that ranged from 86 decibels to 96 decibels.

“It is almost more than sound, it penetrates your body. It is a nervous system assault,” Sapunar said. “It can rattle things in your house. And you can’t get away from it.”

For Saul Greenberg, another north-side resident, flyovers can be painful. Greenberg uses a hearing-aid for hearing loss in certain frequencies. “It feels like I’m being assaulted,” he said. “It actually physically hurts and drowns out everything.”

By association alone, the jets cause stress, according to Greenberg, who dislikes the militaristic intrusion on philosophical grounds. But there are other, less subjective reasons for concern, he said, such as the environmental impact of pollution.

For others such as Dan Young, owner of Young’s Dairy, the jet noise can be an annoyance, but nothing that impacts the decisions of his patrons. In fact, Young said, “many many hundreds” of visitors each year are base-related.

“Sometimes it slows up an outside conversation, for 30 seconds or so, but there’s 24 hours in everyday,” Young said. “It’s just what is here, as part of our local environment.”

No one is straying from purchasing Yellow Springs property because of the OANG, according to agent Craig Mesure. While he considers the jets to be an annoyance of sorts, they are also a curiosity for his kids.

“My kids love them,” he said. “We count them.”

But the intensity of the noise experience near the airport is anything but a curiosity for some.

In what she calls “almost intolerable” circumstances, Amy Achor, a Meredith Road resident, recorded peak sound levels between 86 decibels and 106 decibels, beginning at 8:23 a.m., with an overhead jet passing at 8:27, 9:27, 9:29, 9:31, 9:32, 9:33, 9:34, 9:38, 9:39, 9:40, 9:41, 9:42, 9:43, 9:45, 9:46, and then continuously every minute until 9:50 a.m. Further flyovers began at 9:55, 9:57, 9:59, 10, 10:01, 10:03 — continuously every minute until 10:20 a.m. They began again at 10:42 a.m., but Achor stopped documenting because she left her residence in what she described as an attempt to get away from the bombardment.

This situation is not a daily pattern, but something Roberts attributes to a certain stage of flight training that involves “touch and go” flight patterns, which he said could result in a fly-over each minute for the duration of the exercise. “We’re teaching how to take off and land the airplane in a closed pattern,” he said.

While Achor recognizes multiple issues with consistent, low-flying jet traffic, her greatest concern is the impact of the noise on her health. “There are studies that show noise has a negative effect on health. The unpredictability adds to the stress, and you can’t get away from it,” she said. “Even my animals are terrified, and I can’t imagine what effect this could have on wildlife in John Bryan and the Glen.”

But residents don’t have to live on the north side or within the airport’s noise contours to experience the negative impacts of noise, according to other Yellow Springers.

The south side of town is also affected by jet noise, according to Harvey Paige, who said he spends a lot of time outdoors and is greatly affected by the jet traffic. During a flyover, Paige cannot hear his outdoor speakers, or anything else. He has recorded sound levels of 85 decibels at his home, and 84 decibels downtown in the business district.

“Some might say, ‘whatever, what’s the big deal?,’ ” he said. “But it is a big deal. We pay a lot of money to live in this town.”

A study conducted for the FAA by scientists in 1994 established a calculation that, Paige said, charts the link between noise and property values. “They’ve got it down to a percentage of decrease in land value per decibel,” he said.

The study found that the effect is highest on moderately and higher priced areas, Paige said, who noted that he is aware of two potential Yellow Springs property owners who declined to move to the village because of the jet traffic.

Achor is certain that the jet traffic has had “a very real effect” on property values since the training mission began. “There has been a tremendous increase in number and in duration [of jets],” she said. “It wasn’t an issue for me before.”

Noise Compatibility Program

FAA policies generally promote land use planning that prevents “encroachment,” or the development of residential areas that are incompatible with noise produced by air traffic. And in order for an airport to access federal funds to purchase surrounding residential land, the FAA requires airport officials to conduct studies to determine its noise contours.

In 1994, the airport conducted a Noise Compatibility Plan, or NCP, which was updated in 2006 through a subsequent study, required because of the increase in flight activity. The 2006 study did not actually monitor sound levels in the surrounding area, but instead used database noise calculations supplied by the FAA.

While the NCP is a voluntary process, the FAA requires the airport to communicate with surrounding communities through public workshops to properly identify the noise issues that could be eligible for federally funded abatement.

In 1994, the community input process included advisory board representatives from Yellow Springs and was successful at engaging about 12 families living in the direct vicinity of the airport. The three-ring binder detailing the results of the study has been available in the village offices, with an appendix including the sign-up sheets of participants and the letters of concern they wrote to officials.

By contrast, the airport’s 2006 update did not involve an advisory board, did not engage those local to the airport nor in Yellow Springs, and was only recently mailed to Village Manager Mark Cundiff in late October.

Advertised with a legal notice in the Springfield News-Sun, the meeting had 10 participants from the Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus areas, each of whom has been identified by Paige, in a recent letter to Village Council, as being directly related to the aviation industry through employment, research or consulting.

Despite the difference in public involvement between the two studies, the FAA maintains that officials did carry out what was required of them by publishing a legal notice and hosting a workshop.

For Paige, the lack of outreach for public participation in Yellow Springs and the surrounding area is a breach of duty of the FAA Part 150 requirements. He has written letters to the airport, the OANG, Village Council, City of Springfield officials, Royal Netherlands Air Force officials, congressmen, and senators to raise issues about what he sees as a lack of transparency and effective implementation of the FAA mandate.

“It’s been frustrating. Asking lots and lots of questions, and getting very few answers,” he said. “How do they decide if they are in compliance with the NCP requirements? It is my judgment that they are not.”

A seat at the table for YS

Efforts to get the airport to proactively engage with Yellow Springs are ongoing, according to many surveyed for this article. Part of the FAA noise study process requires airports to identify how communications with local communities will continue beyond the period of the noise study.

According to Pat Richards, the deputy economic administrator for the City of Springfield, the “ongoing efforts” identified in the noise studies will be handled through the Airport Advisory Board. Village Manager Mark Cundiff is a sitting member, and has attended all but one of the meetings during his tenure with the village.

According to Cundiff, the board is well aware that there are serious concerns about noise in the village.

But intermittent noise is very difficult to control through policy, and equally difficult to enforce, Cundiff said. All communities have issues with noise, he said, and jets are not the only noise pollution the village faces.

“In Yellow Springs, we also have truckers engine breaking into town, and motorcycles accelerating out of town,” he said.

Yellow Springs has a Village Noise Ordinance that establishes sound levels of 65 to 75 decibels to be acceptable in residential and industrial areas, respectively. Impulsive sound levels, according to the ordinance, are not to exceed 100 decibels during the day, and 80 decibels at night. The policy does not address jet noise, but does state that there will be a noise control officer and a noise administrator. Cundiff said it appears that after the policy was passed in 2006, no one was appointed to the role because of time and costs involved in the required training program.

Cundiff recently forwarded citizen concerns about jet noise to Springfield City Manager James Bodenmiller. Though Cundiff knows that not all residents share the same concerns about the noise created by jets, he takes the concerns of villagers seriously, and is open to suggestions on how to proceed.

Council recently suggested that Cundiff invite a representative from the City of Springfield or the airport to attend a Council meeting to present information.

“To get rid of the noise altogether, the planes would have to leave,” Cundiff said. In his opinion, “citizens accept that the planes are here, but the concern is that there could be more.”

Whereas previous notices have only been published in the Springfield News-Sun, OANG has published a legal notice regarding new construction and potential acquisition of property in this issue of the News. And there is a new telephone number for noise complaints, manned by Major Laura Powers, the wing executive staff officer. The new direct number is 937-525-2780.

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