A Planning Commission public hearing on new airport noise zoning overlays saw outcry from people who could see their homes moved into an area where residential development is forbidden due to Dulles Airport noise.
The county is working to implement the results of a 2019 noise study around Dulles Airport into the Airport Impact Overlay District. Currently, the district is divided into three parts based on a “Loudness Day Night,” or Ldn, calculation that projects the annual average airplane noise level weighted for nighttime noise. Those noise overlays also do not necessarily reflect airport noise today—they are based on the airport’s potential full capacity, including a planned additional east-west runway to the south of airport property that has no specific timeline to be built.
The local noise overlay does not control where airplanes may fly—that authority is reserved for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Within a one-mile buffer of the Ldn 60, the only additional requirement is a written disclosure to homebuyers that they are in an area impacted by aircraft noise. In the Ldn 60-65, the next-noisier district, in addition to the disclosure there are requirements that homes be built with acoustic treatments to lessen the noise inside. And in the Ldn 65, residential development is largely forbidden.
Actual airport noise can impact home values, according to research by the Dulles Area Association of Realtors. In response to a question from county staff, the association found studies indicating the home value impact of airport noise of 65 decibels or more can range from undetectable to around 20%. According to the CDC, 60 decibels is about the level of a normal conversation; 70 decibels is comparable to a washing machine or dishwasher. The decibel scale is logarithmic—every 10 decibels equates to a noise twice as loud.
While the new contours shrink in many areas, residents of Birchwood at Brambleton have seen their neighborhood, which is already approved but still under construction, moved from the one-mile buffer or the Ldn 60-65 into the Ldn 65 zone. And they are worried not only about the noise, but the overlay affecting their lives and property values.
Birchwood resident Carolyn McCulley organized her neighbors to pack the commission’s June 28 public hearing. She said she bought her home in early 2020 and went out to the site multiple times as her house was being built.
“Professionally, I’m a filmmaker and a podcast producer and my home office would be at this site, so I was very concerned about the noise. I did everything that I could do to be an educated home purchaser,” she said. “But the only disclosure that I had to sign at closing was a generic statement that I lived near the airport. So, you can understand what an unpleasant surprise it was to get your notice that a zoning change was going to be made.”
She said in her case, her home was in the one-mile buffer—so it was built without even the additional noise insulation.
“Now I’ve been moved into it, and my home is not protected. How this happened in a new neighborhood is very frustrating,” she said. “We’re only half built.”
She suggested the county offer help for those homeowners perhaps providing tax credits to help offset the loss in property value.
And Marcia Calhoun asked the county to put pressure on the FAA to keep planes on a straight trajectory until they clear the community—exactly what Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials have long warned would happen if homes are permitted in high noise areas, and has already happened at the authority’s other airport, Reagan National. Airports authority officials have warned those flight restrictions could stymie Dulles Airport’s growth and importance as an economic engine for the region.
“The plain fact of the matter is, the problem’s just going to get worse,” said Dennis Boykin, who long served as chairman of Leesburg’s Airport Commission. “The new 30 Left [runway] is coming, and it’s just going to get worse and worse. And as a guy who’s taken off on 30 [the existing east-west runway] a lot of times, when the controller says you’ve got to turn, you’ve got to turn, but it seems to me that there is some room that we could possibly work on that with MWAA. It’s not that hard to stay straight for another three miles.”
“Dulles is the only international airport on the east cost of the United States that has room to grow, to add an additional runway, and this is extraordinarily important for the economic development of Loudoun County,” said Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority State and Local Government Affairs Manager Michael Cooper. “It’s extraordinarily important that the airport be allowed to grow.”
And airports authority Planning Department Manager Gregg Wollard said the fifth runway will be built.
“Our airline partners, and our major airline partner at Dulles Airport, is growing their activity rather significantly,” he said.
Others voiced concern about the overlay’s business impacts, such as representatives from developer Toll Brothers who could see a planned mixed-use development affected. And Ford’s Fish Shack owner Tony Stafford said the restrictions on new housing could affect his restaurant business.
“I think we all know that we are dying for workforce housing, and if we limit that development and limit that workforce housing, it’s going to have detrimental effects to my business and a lot of businesses that are dying out there for more people to work,” he said. He and others asked that developments in the pipeline now be grandfathered in under the current noise overlays.
The Planning Commission voted to send the new overlay to a work session for more consideration—in part to give members a chance to understand the underpinnings of the 2019 noise study.
“I was incredibly urged to make a motion to recommend denial to the Board of Supervisors, I really was, largely because I feel like there are too many moving parts here, and that in a lot of ways there are issues related to our neighbors, the residents who live and [are] currently impacted, and future impacted neighborhoods and areas,” said Planning Commission Chairman Forest Hayes (At Large).
And Commissioner Michelle Frank (Broad Run) said the outcry at the public hearing and in comments submitted online showed the importance of the overlay district.
“To me that just stresses how important it is for us to use an overlay map in our planning, because if we don’t know where the noise is, we’re just going to put more residential where it probably doesn’t belong, and we’re going to have more people upset,” she said.
The commission voted 8-0-1 to send the overlay to a work session, with Vice Chairman Jeff Salmon (Dulles) absent.
This article was updated Aug. 18 at 3:19 p.m. to correct an error in a quote.