Planners expect Connector to raise decibels near Sycamore Shoals area

By Thomas Wilson


   Traffic -- and an increase in noise -- could become significant components to the Northern Connector road project, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation's environmental assessment.
   TDOT's assessment of the $28 million project pointed to four areas that are identified as being affected by the highway's noise. One of the most prominent is the area situated behind the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area on the north side of the Watauga River.
   "There is just not a whole lot we can do about it," said Herb Roberts, Sycamore Shoals Park superintendent. "There wasn't much public input to it, in my opinion."
   Mike Rasmussen, Transportation Specialist in Nashville who wrote the noise assessment, explained his division received a description of the highway's path and assessed the worst-case scenarios of noise affecting the area near the highway.
   "We get traffic reports and look at the functional layouts or plans. We select representative noise level points or sensory receptors," said Rasmussen. "Normally I'll take the worst case receiver and let that represent the majority of receptors. Then we predict the noise levels."
   According to the assessment, the area across the Watauga from Sycamore Shoals currently experiences exterior noise levels of 54 decibels. When the Connector is completed, the noise level behind the park will rise to 71 decibels.
   Two other areas identified by TDOT are near the Pleasant Beach community. The existing exterior decibel level is rated at 60 decibels at site 2A and 68 decibels at site 2B. If the Connector's path remains the same, those numbers are projected to increase to 73 decibels for both sites.
   The assessment identifies 34 residences and one church in area 2A and 32 residences and two churches in area 2B.
   The fourth site lies east of the Northern Connector near the highway's planned oval interchange with U.S. Highway 19E. Thirty-three residences are identified within the fourth site where decibel levels are expected to rise from 61 to 72 decibels with completion of the Connector.
   Decibel increases of 0 to 5 denote minor impact while increases of 6 to 15 decibels are rated as having a moderate impact on the environment, according to TDOT's assessment.
   An increase of over 15 decibels is rated as having a substantial impact in the assessment. But will residents and/or park patrons notice a difference in changing sound levels?
   "Yes, they will notice it," said Rasmussen. "You can notice three and above decibels."
   In addition to the increase in noise, Roberts also said he was concerned about future development that would occur across the river.
   The state owns property across the north bank of the Watauga River roughly 10 feet above the high water mark.
   "My biggest concern is with the noise and also with what type of development is gong to show up across the river," said Roberts.
   Roberts also said that since flat ground was at a premium in the county, the highway's development would create an opportunity for commercial development along the river's north bank.
   "If it stays agricultural that's great," said Roberts, "but if we're talking about commercial development like the establishments down Broad Street or a residential development or small farms, some of that would impact us."
   Rasmussen said normal noise abatement consists of "noise walls" that block the sound of traffic from residential areas. However, the Connector's proximity to the river and numerous residential side streets prevent the building of noise walls.
   "With the uncontrolled access, side streets and city streets, it is just not feasible to build noise walls," he said. "Our division does not select the alternatives; we just judge analyze the information."
   Noise abatement measures can include but are not limited to concrete walls. There are other abatement measures of various types and textures, said Rasummen.
   However, identifying noise problems and abating them are two different animals, especially given the geography of the Connector's path, said TDOT officials.
   "If you do not have access control you cannot really abate the noise," said Michael Agnew, assistant director of TDOT's design division in Nashville.
   Agnew said public comments collected at the public hearing held in Elizabethton on October 8 and additional ideas received during the public comment period would be consider in altering the Connector's design.
   "We have made several changes just as part of the normal design projects," said Agnew. "It is still possible based on the comments on design changes."
   A public campground located adjacent to the park is part of Sycamore Shoals' strategic management plan. How the Connector might affect the long-term plans of the campground remain unknown, said Roberts.
   "Whatever happens I hope it is done in good taste," he said. "I hope they keep the park in mind and the city in mind."