So why are you complaining?

by Nick Miller

S'Martin- S'Mararten

Maybe one person’s noise is another person’s music. Train horns in the distance can have a kind of nostalgic sound, but people who live near a grade crossing may not think so. (Try a room on the back side of the Hampton Inn San Diego – Downtown. You might take your earplugs.) Find any newspaper article on the Internet about aircraft noise complaints, check the comments and you’ll find things like “These folks should have known they are buying near an airport,” or considerably snarkier. Which might be a reasonable remark except even knowing doesn’t translate to a real awareness of what living with loud aircraft overflights day-after-day is really like. Of course, what realtor or home owner is going to try to alert the prospective buyer to the reality of life near an airport?

Quite a few airports require that home buyers receive some sort of disclosure statement, but all the ones I know about are presented at the closing. A little late, don’t you think? The only possibly effective method I know of is attempted by DFW airport. They try to get realtors to send in home buyers, and DFW shows them large displays of where aircraft fly. Much better, I think, than telling the buyer their house is in a noise zone or is within some decibel value of a noise contour. Who’s going to understand that?

I feel quite certain that most people who buy a home in the near vicinity of a commercial air carrier airport (say within 1 to 5 miles, depending on specific location and the level of operations at the airport) are unaware of what it can be like to live there day-after-day, night-after-night. I find it quite interesting, however, that there is a predominant meme that posits house prices reflect the acceptability of aircraft noise (hedonic pricing method). In other words, people pay less for such homes because they discount the price since they will have to live with the noise. Using hedonic pricing assumes that the buyer decides what to pay because he knows what he’s buying. That’s fine for buying a 60-inch flat screen TV to replace a 20-inch flat screen. But I think it’s an inaccurate means of assigning a cost to noise, or “monetizing” aircraft noise so that it can be compared with other costs (e.g. air quality health effects) or benefits (e.g. accessibility to transportation) of living near an airport. Studies seem generally to show a reduction in house price of 10% to 12% per 10 dB increase in aircraft noise, beginning at some identified lower level where there is an assumed no effect of aircraft noise.

But does this method really reflect the “cost” of noise? Some argue that noise is a quality of life issue upon which no price can be placed – a problem common to many amenities, such as low crime rates, clean streets or green spaces. Another way of thinking about the cost of noise, if we must, is how community dislike of noise affects decision-making about airports. Think about the many years (decades even) that it takes to propose, approve, design and build a new runway or a runway lengthening. What are the costs of the many studies reported as drafts, revisions, and revisions of revisions and associated public meetings, to say nothing of the costs of delayed construction and travel delays due to insufficient air travel capacity?

Finally, here’s an incident I recall reading about, but can’t verify for certain. Someone living in Northeast Harbor, ME, didn’t like the sound he could hear of the local sewage treatment plant. He asked the town if they could quiet it, getting the reply that they didn’t have the money to modernize it. So he donated, I believe, $60,000 to help the town pay for the quieting. Whether accurately remembered or not, I believe the substance is correct, and this story suggests to me a possible short-coming of asking people how much they would be willing to pay for less noise. The answer probably depends on what resources they have available.

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