In the Palisades, Everything But Clear Skies
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, residents of the Palisades neighborhood in northwest D.C. look skyward. With clipboards in hand, they meticulously rate the noise levels of airplanes flying over their homes on the way to nearby Reagan National Airport.
They mark an option for each aircraft -- "less loud" than usual, "normal" or "louder." They hope their notations will convey, to regional and federal agencies, what it is like to live in a community where the house windows sometimes rattle in sync with the commercial-jet engines overhead.
"Just this morning, at 6 o'clock, I heard an aircraft fly over my house and I said, 'It's time to get up,' " said Spence Spencer, president of the Palisades Citizens Association, which is conducting a six-week study with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
About 700 flights take off from and land at National Airport each day, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Half fly over the Palisades.
On clear days, when visibility is good, aircraft bound for National operate under visual flight rules, basically following the Potomac River route and avoiding flying over neighborhoods such as the Palisades, FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said. On overcast days, they fly under instrument flight rules and often have to end up over homes.
"We are very sensitive to noise issues, but our main concern is safety and you can't have aircraft snake their way up the river when they can't see the river," Takemoto said.
Palisades residents say they understand that, but they also think that new technology, based on a global positioning system approach, could keep the aircraft over the river in good weather and bad. The community, between Chain Bridge and Key Bridge, with an estimated 3,000 households, big shade trees and unique, old homes, has been involved in noise-abatement issues for many years.
"First of all, we are not trying to close down National Airport," said Stu Ross, past president of the citizens association. "What we're trying to do is find the best scientific way to manage noise. There are a couple of ways you can do this -- one is quieter engines, obviously, and the other is patterns pilots may fly when landing."
Coexisting with airport noise is one of the continuing predicaments of modern American life. Recent airport expansions, like those at San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul, produced a storm of new protesters. As daily flights have increased and once-sleepy airports have grown, more residents and citizens groups across the country have begun pushing for better noise control.
"The problem is that the number of takeoffs and landings have increased faster than airplanes are getting quieter, and the times of takeoffs and landings are spreading into more vulnerable times of day, into early morning and late evening when people are sleeping," said Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt.
Palisades residents only complain about aircraft noise to a point. They knew what they were getting into when they moved into the neighborhood northwest of Georgetown, but the charm of the area bowled them over. In a mayor's proclamation that celebrated Palisades Day in May 2005, the community was described as "a small town in the big city, composed of an eclectic mix of citizens of all backgrounds committed to making our city a better place to live and work," and "a treasure of green spaces, quiet streets, high bluffs and breathtaking sunsets." The Palisades also has become known for its annual Fourth of July parade.
"I don't know anyone who's ever moved out or didn't buy a house here because of" the planes, said Ross, an attorney who moved to the Palisades 26 years ago and now lives in "an old boardinghouse" there. "You get used to it. Everyone benefits from how close National is to us. It's just one of those things you kind of put up with."