Neighbors seek quiet

Published 7:29 pm Saturday, July 2, 2011

Quiet zone: About a dozen residents of the Olde Mill Creek neighborhood, along with their City Council representative, Leroy Bennett, gathered near the train tracks Friday to show support for a quiet zone being established in the neighborhood.

When most of the homeowners in Olde Mill Creek bought their homes, the trains weren’t a problem.

They saw the train tracks, of course, and inquired of their real estate agents and established residents. The answer they heard was, at the time, the truth: A small train with five or fewer cars came by about twice a week headed to a nearby chemical plant.

“I lived here for five years and never saw it,” said Brooke Schaab, who has only one house separating her home from the tracks in the subdivision off Wilroy Road.

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Then, in 2006, Commonwealth Railway, the owners of the tracks, called a meeting of the property owners. The news was devastating for those who live there.

The tracks were being converted to main-line tracks. They would begin carrying several trains a day at all hours of the day and night.

Since then, the community has suffered through the unbearable noise, cracks in their walls and property values dropping more than comparable homes elsewhere, neighbors say.

The trains have several engines and up to 200 cars. They carry containers, sometimes double-stacked, to and from the port.

The worst part, to many residents, is the noise of the train whistle. After that meeting in 2006, two real estate agents living in the neighborhood had signs in their yards within two weeks.

“When he blows that whistle, if you don’t hear it, you’re either deaf or dead,” neighbor Frank Headley said. “The train is just ridiculous.”

Schaab has started a petition to have a quiet zone established at the crossing. The Federal Railway Administration determines which crossings are eligible for quiet zones, where the train conductors are not permitted to blow the whistle.

But, in most cases, localities have to fork over the money for improvements required to make the crossing safer — for example, adding more gates so that drivers cannot maneuver around them — before a quiet zone can be added.

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn wrote to Commonwealth Railway on June 9 to seek support for a quiet zone at Olde Mill Creek and other locations throughout the city.

“We are eagerly awaiting the response,” Public Works director Eric Nielsen said on Friday.

A study by an outside consultant hired by the city found that the needed improvements at Olde Mill Creek would cost about $50,000, but the railroad company thinks it would be closer to $200,000, Nielsen said.

Some residents of the community are upset the city recently spent money on bonuses without making the improvements they need for a quiet zone. But others think it should be the railroad’s responsibility, anyway.

“They’re creating the danger,” neighbor Kathy Smith said. “They’re creating the problem with the noise.”

Schaab has even found studies documenting decreased reading proficiency in children whose schools were located near train tracks. There’s a newborn sleeping in the closest bedroom to the tracks at her neighbor’s house, she said.

Schaab’s neighbors are eager to sign the petition.

“They snatch it out of my hand, asking ‘Where do I sign?’” she said.

Councilman Leroy Bennett, who represents the area, is encouraging the neighbors to keep up the petition and start writing letters. He has been vocal in City Council meetings about seeking relief from the railroad companies.

Schaab hopes the city will be able to come up with the money, especially since it may help increase property values and prevent short sales and foreclosures.

“You’re going to get a lot of that $50,000 back if you make the community more desirable to live,” she said.