The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A neighborhood fights to be heard as Dulles planes drown out daily life

Planes from Dulles are an ever-present sight over the Birchwood at Brambleton community in Loudoun County. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

It’s late afternoon in Loudoun County when residents of the Birchwood at Brambleton neighborhood hear a familiar rumble outside. As it builds to a roar, routines are suspended. Zoom calls are muted. Televisions are paused. Conversations halt, both indoors and out.

Those in the neighborhood know all too well what the noise is: A plane departing from Dulles Airport is about to rocket overhead.

Many residents of Birchwood at Brambleton, an over-55 community, bought and moved into their homes in 2020 and 2021, when air travel at Dulles and airports nationwide was slashed because of the pandemic. Many say they weren’t adequately warned about how loud and disruptive normal plane traffic could and would be. And dozens have united now, forming a group called the Loudoun Aircraft Noise Mitigation Committee, in a desperate push to be heard.

“We need help,” said one member, Marcia Calhoun, 59. “We need someone to step forward and say, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t right, what’s happened to these residents … and we’re going to help you figure out how you can live in your homes.’”

The Birchwood committee joins neighborhoods in the Washington area and around the country in the renewed fight for quieter skies. But the residents’ options appear limited.

The number of people who have submitted noise complaints to Dulles, which dipped in 2020, has now reached a record high, according to Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority data. Combined, noise complaints from Dulles and Reagan National between January and May were more than twice as high compared to the same period in 2021, MWAA data show. Such complaints have not led to change.

Birchwood residents say the noise levels’ return has disrupted social plans, work schedules and sleep. It can be more than just a nuisance, too, said Jamie Banks, founder of Quiet Communities, an organization dedicated to reducing the health and environmental harm from noise pollution. Loud, unwanted noise, Banks said, increases the risk of health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and older residents are an especially vulnerable group.

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That includes some residents of Birchwood, whose motto is “Life refreshes at 55” and whose grounds include indoor and outdoor pools, a clubhouse, an art studio, pickleball courts and a lake. Neighbors will often sit and chat on porches together, never failing to wave to passersby.

“If you polled almost every resident, we love this neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood to live in. It’s got tons of amenities. Everybody’s really friendly. It’s a wonderful place to be,” said Connie Lewis, 60.

Planes taking off from Dulles Airport can be loudly heard in Brambleton, Va. (Video: Pam Smith)

But residents on the noise-mitigation committee said it can be difficult to take full advantage of that outdoor living with the overhead interruptions. One of the committee’s aims is to work with agencies such as the FAA and MWAA to stop planes from flying at low altitudes.

“We’re not trying to be unreasonable. We expect planes to fly overhead. It’s just we want them at 4,000 feet or higher,” said Carolyn McCulley, one of the committee’s leaders.

The steps needed for that change, though, are unclear.

“Addressing this concern requires collaboration among the FAA, air carriers, airports, aircraft manufacturers, research universities, local communities and elected officials,” an FAA spokesperson said in a statement. “If a community is concerned about aircraft noise, the best course of action is to contact their local aviation community roundtable or airport operator. The FAA can then work with airport operators to determine if the aircraft noise can be mitigated through changes in air traffic procedures.”

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MWAA operates Dulles. And Mike Jeck, manager of MWAA’s airport noise information office, said flight altitudes are ultimately up to the FAA.

Either way, getting flights up to 4,000 feet over Birchwood would be “impossible,” Jeck said, as departing Dulles flights are already climbing at their maximum possible altitudes.

Exasperated residents from the greater Brambleton neighborhood spoke out at a public hearing June 28, forming one of the largest crowds the Loudoun County’s Planning Commission had ever seen.

According to a notice Birchwood residents received earlier that month, the Loudoun County Planning Commission is considering updating its zoning policies near Dulles by updating its Airport Impact Overlay District, also known as a noise contour map, which designates three zones according to noise impact. The one-mile buffer, which is the farthest zone from the airport on the map, requires a disclosure notice of sound impacts with each property sale. The next-highest noise level requires a disclosure notice as well as acoustical treatment for new residential construction. The zone closest to the airport prohibits new residential development.

The proposal would update the boundaries for each of these three zones based on a study MWAA published in 2019 that Jeck said more accurately reflects the airport’s present and anticipated noise levels as Dulles continues to develop. MWAA strongly advises Loudoun County to adopt the new contours to prevent more people from living where noise levels are highest as Dulles grows, he said.

The updated contours would move 600 existing homes into the highest-noise zone, where new residential development is prohibited. Nearly 17,000 existing homes would move into the second tier, though many of them — along with many of the homes moving into the highest noise levels — lack sound protection, since they were built before such regulations were proposed. The best solution for the neighborhoods at this point, Jeck said, is to install such acoustical treatments for their windows and doors.

The contours, which would not change noise or flight paths, could have another effect: According to a study cited by the county planning commission, houses requiring disclosure in the highest noise zone could see a 2.9 percent reduction in values. The Loudoun Aircraft Noise Mitigation Committee, which represents about 2,700 homes in the greater Brambleton community, is seeking to block the move both for symbolic and financial reasons.

“We don’t want to be zoned in the noisy zone. We don’t want to see our home values diminished because nobody fought for us,” McCulley said.

McCulley, 59, said she started building her home in 2020 and would often visit her home’s construction site in the early months of the pandemic to gauge noise levels from Dulles. A documentary filmmaker who works from home, she was acutely aware of how the nearby noise could affect her job schedule.

But McCulley said she didn’t expect the noise to be so disruptive. Using an app on her phone, she has recorded it reaching up to 80 decibels, about as loud as a garbage disposal — a din she said lasts for several minutes and repeats throughout the day. Since her work editing audio requires quieter environments, she plans her schedule around the noise.

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Several Birchwood residents said their only disclosure about the airport’s sound levels before they purchased their homes was in a sentence at the end of one of the many contracts they signed with their builders before closing. In addition to updating the noise contour map, Loudoun County’s proposal would require such disclosures for every home sale, not just the initial sale, anywhere within the district map.

Kim Adams, director of marketing for the Brambleton Group, the master developer of Brambleton, said in a statement that the company already has a “multi-pronged approach” to alert buyers of the airport’s proximity: disclosures found in brochures, site plans, websites, sales contracts, HOA documents and more, complying with county ordinances. A message at the bottom of Birchwood’s homepage notes that it “is in close proximity to Dulles International Airport” and “is subject to aircraft overflights and aircraft noise.”

Just under half of the Birchwood community is built out, Adams said.

Jeck, of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said he saw the community backlash coming. In 2017, MWAA wrote to Loudoun County advising that the proposed Brambleton community would be exposed to low-flying planes and overhead aircraft noise. But since the site would still be within the lower noise contours, where it was legal to develop, the county approved the site for development shortly after.

“This is the fight, this is the frustration, this is the battle,” Jeck said. “The war is what the developers call economic development and what the airport calls quality of life.”

In a statement, an FAA spokesperson said the agency encourages airport sponsors to reduce development on land that is “incompatible with air operations” and “mitigate impacts where feasible.” The spokesperson said Dulles does not participate in the FAA’s voluntary Noise Compatibility Planning Program, which helps airport agencies identify communities impacted by airport noise.

The Quiet Skies Caucus, co-chaired by D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), secured four provisions in late June to combat aircraft noise in a House appropriations bill for fiscal year 2023, including directing the FAA to engage with communities affected by aircraft noise. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), Norton’s co-chair, has also advocated on behalf of neighborhoods near Boston’s Logan Airport.

The FAA “needs to hear directly from communities about aircraft noise instead of going to me or other members of Congress,” Norton said.

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Elsewhere in recent years, it has. In 2017, a federal appeals court sided with the city of Phoenix and called on the FAA to scrap flight paths enacted in 2014 at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport, finding that the agency failed to seek proper public input for the decision. The same year, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan directed the state’s attorney general to sue the FAA over increases in airplane noise at Reagan and at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport linked to new flight paths.

At Birchwood, despite the noise, many residents say they have no plans to move. They like their homes and their neighbors. They like the pools and pickleball.

What they want, they say, is just a little more quiet.

“I said to my kids, ‘I bought a house where everything was on one level. I could live here until I’m 97 years old,’” said Dawn Squires, a real estate agent living in Birchwood.

That’s still her plan.

“This is the last house I will ever own,” she said.

correction

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Dawn Squires. The story has been corrected.

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