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Airplane noise threshold angers residents; 242 properties taken off federal abatement plan

Michelle and Junior Borkowski moved from Lackawanna into their Cheektowaga home about a year ago, fully aware of the roar above.

Their house on Fath Drive, off Union Road near George Urban Boulevard, sits in line with one of the runways at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The Borkowskis knew it would be a little noisy living there, but at the time they bought it, the house was in line for improvements through a federal noise-abatement program for communities near airports.

That all changed earlier this year when they -- along with the owners of nearly 250 other properties -- got letters saying their homes were no longer eligible.

Stand in the driveway next door to the Borkowski's home -- one that's still eligible to get the federal funds -- and it would be hard to claim there's discernible difference in the level of sound from the airplanes soaring overhead.

So instead of various types of sound insulation -- all meant to dampen the noise from planes overhead -- they are faced with tens of thousands of dollars in costs if they want what the homeowner next door will still be getting.

"We would have never, ever gotten the place," Michelle Borkowski said, had they known it could be removed from eligibility.

Fewer homes are eligible because the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority was required to provide an update of its "noise exposure map" to the Federal Aviation Administration. The noise threshold for abatement is 65 decibels, or what's called a 65 day-night level. Any property with noise levels at that point or higher can get relief through this program.

The Borkowskis have been told their home sits at a level of 64.

Junior Borkowski said he finds that hard to believe.

"It's just about money. They don't want to spend the money on fixing up these houses like they promised everybody around here," Borkowski said.

In total, 242 parcels are no longer eligible for the federal noise-abatement program, said William R. Vanecek, director of aviation for the NFTA, which runs the airport.

To date, 440 parcels have been completed, leaving 545 parcels that are still eligible for the work, Vanecek said.

In updating its map, the NFTA put data from 2008 into a computer model. The data included flight schedules, aircraft types and flight patterns. It also included projections on the level of flight activity at the airport in 2013.

What it found was a shrinking noise impact on the surrounding community.

The initial noise study began in 2003. It also was the product of a computer model, though a limited number of actual noise measurements were taken at that time in order to verify results of the computer model, Vanecek said.

No additional noise levels were recorded during the recent update.

Under the program, the average home gets about $30,000 in improvements, Vanecek said.

Each home gets customized work, which can include new doors and windows, insulation and improved ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Projects also have been completed at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church and the Maryvale Elementary School campus.

The federal government covers 80 percent of the program costs and requires a 20 percent match from local authorities. The local funding comes from a $4.50-per-ticket passenger facility fee that is charged for every takeoff and landing at the airport.

So far, about $28.5 million has been spent on the project, including $13.2 million in construction costs.

With the parcels that are now ineligible, that reduced the estimated remaining cost by $7 million to about $30 million, Vanecek said.

In 2007, the NFTA bought two homes on Cayuga Road -- directly across the street from the airport -- and paid the residents' relocation fees under this program. One home was demolished, and the other serves as a model home for the sound insulation offerings.

With regard to those residents who are frustrated to have been removed from eligibility, Vanecek said his agency understands it's difficult for some to see neighbors just down the road who will be getting improvements to their home.

"To the human ear, if you're 50 feet or 100 feet over the line, you can't tell the difference," he said. "The problem, of course, that we're faced with is that the FAA has rules and restrictions, and they have to draw a line somewhere."

Some of the homes that have been removed from program eligibility may never have actually had noise levels that made them eligible, Vanecek said. That's because the initial 2003 study predicted higher levels of activity at the airport than actually happened.

The NFTA expects to have the rest of the eligible homes finished by 2013.

A draft report has been submitted to the FAA, which has yet to formally sign off on it.

Airports are not mandated to participate in the FAA's program but do so on a voluntary basis.

"We still view this as a very, very good program for the community," Vanecek said.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, sent a letter to the FAA about the NFTA's noise report in late June, calling the proposed noise exposure map "arbitrary in its makeup."

"Homeowners don't understand why only one neighbor on their street is eligible for improvements, while the rest of the block (which was previously eligible) is not," Higgins wrote in a letter to Christa Fornarotta, the FAA's associate administrator for airports.

The Buffalo congressman suggested the study potentially undercounted forecasted air traffic at the airport and requested the agency delay carrying through with the changes.

Nicole Lipp grew up on Seminole Parkway in Cheektowaga. She bought her grandfather's house on that same street four years ago with the understanding it would be eligible for noise abatement, because it was eligible at the time.

Like the Borkowskis, Lipp is frustrated with the explanation she received about why the change happened, when the noise levels are seemingly the same as they used to be.

Her family can't afford to do all the noise insulation, Lipp said, while the practical effects of living there remain.

"I can't even turn my TV up loud enough to cover the noise," she said.

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