Seeing few benefits and numerous concerns, McLean Citizens Association (MCA) board members on May 4 went on record opposing a proposed Fairfax County comprehensive-plan amendment that would allow residential uses in higher-noise areas near local airports.
The resolution came to the full MCA board after squeaking by on a 10-7 vote in the association’s Planning and Zoning Committee.
Some members pressed to send the matter back to committee for refinements, then forwarding it to MCA’s executive committee for an expedited decision before county officials considered it. But a majority of board members decided the best course was to approve the resolution, which expressed concerns about quality-of-life impacts on homeowners near Washington Dulles International Airport and potential economic impacts to the county.
“This resolution has a somewhat tortured history,” acknowledged Planning and Zoning Committee chairman Robert Perito.
The Fairfax County Planning Commission is slated to review the amendment at a May 18 public hearing and the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take it up June 28. The new rules would apply primarily to Dulles Airport, Perito said.
Fairfax County adopted policies on noise at Dulles Airport in 1979, 1982, 1984 and 1997. That last approval, in March 1997, for the first time established a “noise-contour” area where levels of between 60 and 65 decibels were audible near the airport.
The policy set 60 decibels as the threshold above which new residential development would not be recommended. Previously, such restrictions applied to areas only with decibel levels of 65 and higher.
The noise standards used are Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL). Normal speech clocks in at about 60 decibels, while background noise in metropolitan, urbanized areas typically varies from 60 to 70 decibels, but can go up to 80 and higher, the staff report read. The Federal Aviation Administration considers 65 decibels the threshold of “significant” noise exposure.
While those 1997 rules applied only around Dulles Airport, the proposed amendment would establish an Airport Noise Impact Overlay District (ANIOD) that would regulate land uses within the 65-to-75-decibel noise-contour areas near Dulles, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir.
The policy amendment would apply to noise-contour areas of 60 to 65 decibels near Dulles, about 2,500 acres of which are in Fairfax County. About 85 percent of that land already is developed, with about 22 percent used for residential purposes and 78 percent for non-residential. (In all, roughly 92 percent of the land in that noise-contour area in Loudoun and Fairfax counties is developed or subject to previously approved plan amendments, the resolution read.)
Consideration of new residential uses in the 60-to-65-decibel contour area near Dulles could boost economic-development opportunities, provide additional housing and let residents live and work in a mixed-use area with reasonable commutes on major roadways, the staff report read.
But proposed residential uses would need to address mitigation of noise impacts and ensure future residents were apprised of current and future operations at Dulles, staff wrote.
Interior noise levels of homes in those zones could be reduced to 45 decibels (a drop of 20) using windows, doors, roofs, walls and sealants designed for that purpose. But such an approach “might not always be practical or appropriate, largely due to the number of variables and the complexity of determining an overall noise reduction [on] a site-specific basis,” county staff wrote.
Staff recommended that new residential development being considered in the 60-to-65-decibel contour area be subject to a study of potential noise impacts; have commitments for sound-attenuating building materials; have verification letters affirming such materials were installed properly before issuance of residential-use permits; and have all promotional and marketing materials and leasing and purchasing agreements have noise disclosures about the airport.
MCA’s resolution opposed the amendment in part because neither its text nor the county’s staff report laid out specific disclosure requirements that would be imposed on new residential development within the 60-to-65-decibel zone.
The proposed amendment “offers few potential benefits to the county at large while not addressing important concerns, introducing unnecessary economic risks to [Dulles] airport, and creating potential harms to future county residents,” the resolution concluded.