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Originally published July 30, 2011 at 9:02 PM | Page modified July 31, 2011 at 12:31 AM

Some in Federal Way ticked at noisy neighbor — Sea-Tac Airport

Since Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opened its third runway in 2008 things have gotten louder for residents in the Marine Hills neighborhood of Federal Way, who blame a change in flight patterns. But overall near the airport, things have gotten quieter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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People in the Marine Hills neighborhood of Federal Way are constantly raising their voices. Or often they just stop talking. Some can't sleep through the night.

And they're all pointing fingers at a neighbor eight miles north.

Since Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opened its third runway in 2008, things have gotten louder for residents, who blame a change in flight patterns. "Previously, we virtually had no planes that came over the top of us," said James Simpson, who's lived in Marine Hills for eight years. "Now they're right over the top of us all the time."

A sound monitor in the neighborhood shows that residents are dealing with loud airplane noise more than three times as often as they used to. The average amount of time when noise in the neighborhood is above 65 decibels — about the level of face-to-face conversation, according to noise expert Vince Mestre — has jumped from 78 minutes a day to 260 minutes.

The monitor is one of 25 the Port of Seattle has placed around the region, from the Maple Leaf neighborhood in Seattle to Twin Lakes in Federal Way. The monitors have shown that noise generally has decreased around the airport, which Port officials attribute to fewer and quieter planes. But at 10 of the 25 locations — including Marine Hills — it has gotten louder, according to a Seattle Times analysis of data from the first few months of 2008 and 2011. The analysis uses neighborhoods' median noise-exposure level, a ballpark figure for noise.

Stan Shepherd, the Port's airport-noise-programs manager, said the Port's hands are tied. Federal funding is available to help people soundproof their homes, but areas such as Marine Hills and the area west of Boeing Field that have gotten louder fall below the cutoff. And flight-path changes are not under the Port's jurisdiction — they're up to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The Port's Noise Compatibility Study, which will wrap up around the end of the year, will find who's impacted by airport noise and how to reduce it, said Mestre, who works for Landrum & Brown, the company conducting the study.

The study uses a complicated logarithmic formula required by the FAA to calculate sound. The measurement, referred to as the day-night average noise level (DNL), indicates average noise over a year, with nighttime sound weighted 10 decibels higher because it's considered more annoying.

Marine Hills had the fourth-highest median noise level of all 25 monitors; it was 63.8 during the first three months of 2011. That's almost three decibels higher than it was before the third runway opened in 2008. That equates to roughly twice as many planes flying over the area during the daytime, presuming the loudness of individual planes hasn't changed, Mestre said. Noise exposure also can change as more planes take off or land from the north or south because of weather conditions, he said.

Even though Marine Hills is one of the areas most affected by airport noise, its residents don't qualify for FAA-funded noise protection, such as insulation and sound-dampening windows. That's because Marine Hills remains outside an oval area around the airport, inside of which the average day-night noise level is 65 decibels.

The 65 DNL was established by the FAA with the criteria that at least 15 percent of the population in that area is highly annoyed, said Nancy Timmerman, chair of the Technical Committee on Noise at the Acoustical Society of America.

"Highly annoyed means you're picking up the phone [to complain]. I don't think you want 15 percent of the people picking up the phone," she said. "I don't think that's an acceptable criterion."

Timmerman said 65 DNL is not the standard across all agencies that look at outdoor noise.

The Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization have recommended 55 DNL as a healthy outdoor noise level.

Other cities, such as Minneapolis, have obtained funding to insulate homes in areas below the 65 DNL threshold.

The Port of Seattle has tapped into other funding for noise projects below the 65 DNL in "limited and unusual circumstances," Port spokesman Perry Cooper said, including use of Port funds for noise mitigation in the Highline School District.

And in many places eligible for mitigation funding, the DNL is below 65.

Though the Port's 25 noise monitors show a general drop in noise around the airport, residents haven't been pleased.

A Port report after an October 2010 public workshop concluded: "The general tone of the discussion might be best summed up by this comment: The noise contours do not reflect the reality on the ground."

At a community update on the study in June at Federal Way, many people laid their noise woes before Port commissioners. Residents hearkened back to the long-contentious issue of third-runway use.

Airport neighbors have claimed they were misled to believe the runway would be used only minimally in bad weather. As of July 3, the third runway was used for 34.2 percent of all arrivals and 1.9 percent of departures in 2011, according to the Port, which doesn't have power over runway use — that's also in the hands of the FAA.

Blaming the new runway for noise changes is an oversimplification, Mestre said. The airline industry is always in flux, and the number of fleets operating out of the airport and how many passengers they carry change things, he said.

Federal Way City Councilwoman Linda Kochmar said her constituents in Marine Hills should receive some sort of mitigation funding.

"It's like a gorilla, a Goliath," Kochmar said of the Port. In front of the commission, she pleaded for a change in flight patterns to lessen the noise in Marine Hills. She said she's been asking the Port and FAA for help for years.

Shepherd said every neighborhood around the airport has had the same complaints about air traffic, and if the FAA changed the flight paths, the noise would just affect someone else.

"People want it moved," Shepherd said. "They always want it out of their neighborhood ... . We address those concerns."

Jessie Van Berkel: 206-464-3192 or jvanberkel@seattletimes.com

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