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Hospital's Air-Conditioning Units Frustrate Yale Avenue Residents

At issue is the noise coming from three air-conditioning units that sit atop an electrical substation at SSM St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights, though one resident says similar noise problems have existed for decades.

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misquoted Yale Avenue Kenneth Gurney when he described what he recalls being told about the insulation process planned at SSM St. Mary's Health Center. Gurney said he was told that a process known as "wrapping the chillers" would be undertaken. This article has been updated to reflect the correct quote.

Residents of one Richmond Heights neighborhood are trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to a pesky noise: the drone of air-conditioning (AC) units at .

"It's just been a real pain to the neighborhood," said resident Kenneth Gurney, who has lived in the 1100 block of Yale Avenue for the past five or six years.

It's his understanding that noise from the hospital has been an issue for several decades. That's because expansion led to the creation of a power station and the installation of three large AC units atop it.

In the years that followed, Gurney said, the hospital bought several homes on the west side of Yale Avenue with the intention of developing the area. But the development didn't come to pass. When a housing boom happened, he said, the hospital sold the land to several developers.

The homes are attractive because they are located in the , Gurney said. Over the years, more families with children have moved into the neighborhood.

He was among the people to purchase a house developed on the former hospital land. He estimates that nine houses sprang up in the area, and he said people bought the properties in the fall or winter.

"They didn't realize that the power station was going to make a lot of noise," Gurney said.

Andrew Roth is one such resident. He and his family moved into their new house in July 2010. They heard noise from the hospital's power plant even in winter before they moved in, he said, but it was bearable. They consulted others in the neighborhood about the issue and decided to have their house sound-proofed.

So Roth panicked when, one month before move-in, he walked upstairs and into his son's bedroom.

"It sounded like I was standing inside of a speaker box," he said. The noise resembled that of a window AC unit on full blast.

The noise is still bothersome, Roth said. This week, he and his wife had to raise their voices to be heard during a conversation in the backyard, even though they were standing just five feet apart.

"We had no idea that it was going to go that high," he said.

Conversations with the hospital

At first, Gurney said, the noise "was annoying to most people, but livable." But as the area built up, residents realized they had to do something about it.

It's his understanding that District 3 Councilwoman Gina Mitten asked a hospital representative to deal with the noise issue when plans for renovations at the facility were presented.

Minutes from the council's May 17, 2010 meeting show that Mitten asked about noise concerns after a presentation about St. Mary's renovations by President Bill Jennings.

"Ms. Mitten asked about noise problems which still concern her constituents whose homes are close to the power plant," the minutes state. "Mr. Jennings stated that budgeted sound mitigation and screening work was planned as part of the design process for the new work to be done and noted the truck access would have the same access as already in use."

In summer 2010, Gurney said, he and other residents met for the first time with Don Wojtkowski, PE, executive director of design, construction and facilities for SSM Health Care-St. Louis. He recalls Wojtkowski saying that the hospital was aware of the ongoing issue and that he was in attendance to see if he could make it right. Residents explained the issues they experienced—namely that the noise was loud, which made it difficult to hold a conversation and rendered some backyards unusable from late spring to early fall.

Gurney said Wojtkowski told the group that a sound engineer would be hired to examine the issue. Gurney said he started feeling pretty good about the process at that point.

It didn't last.

Gurney said Wojtkowski later updated residents, explaining it was his understanding that Yale residents had concerns with the high-frequency pitch of the AC units. He proposed a solution: The hospital would engage in a process known as "wrapping* the chillers," in which the interior of the power station would be insulated.

But residents were concerned about the AC units' volume, not their pitch, Gurney said. Nor did they think the proposal to insulate the interior of the building would solve the problem. Still, they agreed to the proposal.

During the winter of 2010, the hospital had the insulation installed. Later, Gurney got a call from Richmond Heights building and zoning commissioner David Reary saying the work at St. Mary's had been completed.

"Sure enough, first hot day, I got a call from somebody," Gurney said. The caller's comment: "'It's really loud still.'"

Gurney consulted Reary, who explained that the city has little control over the hospital's actions.

In general, the county is in charge of regulating noise pollution, Reary said. It's true for other oversight, too, such as restaurant inspections.

Reary's role has been to facilitate conversations about reducing noise between hospital representatives and the residents. He said the hospital has spent money to make improvements in the past.

"I think we're optimistic that we're going to get something done," Reary said.

Yale Avenue resident contacted St. Louis County about St. Mary's noise

The building and zoning commissioner recommended that Gurney contact St. Louis County, which has code regulating noise levels.

Section 625.050 of the county code, a copy of which Gurney provided, states in part: "When the noise emitted is measured upon property which is located in a different land use category than the property upon which the stationary noise source is located, the levels applicable to the property where the noise emitted is measured shall be used to determine if a violation exists." A PDF of the code is attached to this article.

In this case, Gurney said, the sound is traveling from commercial property (the hospital) to residential property (residents' backyards). Because the sound is being measured on residential property, residential sound requirements apply, he said. Thus, he thinks the air-conditioning units should not go above 55 decibels during the day or above 50 decibels at night, as outlined in county code.

Gurney contacted chief environmental engineer Mike Zlatick with the . Gurney had already used a high-definition video camera and a sound meter to capture the sound levels behind the power station. The sounds registered between 65 and 67 decibels, he said.

He shared the video with Zlatick, the hospital and the city's building department. Zlatick responded that the issue required further investigation. Gurney said Zlatick came out on a cold and rainy day to capture sound levels at the back of a house on Yale. His reading: 61.5 decibels, above the daytime maximum of 55 decibels outlined in county code, Gurney said.

Zlatick could not immediately be reached for comment.

Documents provided by Gurney show the hospital has commissioned two noise studies by St. Louis City-based AcoustiControl. One was conducted Aug. 3, 2010, and the other took place on May 10 of this year. A copy of the most recent study is attached to this article.

The May data indicate that while devices known as acoustical louvers and sound blankets cut noise leaving the power plant by 13 decibels, reduction of noise at the nearest property line only fell by one decibel. A cooling tower appears to be causing the predominant noise at that property line, the study states.

"If the cooling tower noise is addressed, then the sound pressure levels at the property line would decrease by 7 to 10 dB," the study states.

The study said several options are available for reducing the noise from the cooling tower, namely replacing cooling fans with whisper quiet fans (projected 15 decibel reduction), replacing them with low-sound fans (projected 9 decibel reduction) or installing a sound barrier wall on three sides of the tower (projected 10 decibel reduction).

Power plant ventilation might also be changed so that doors and windows are always left closed, further reducing sound.

But the study concludes these actions would reduce sound levels to between 60 and 62 decibels. That's still above levels Gurney said county law allows.

At a meeting of the Richmond Heights Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Commission, Gurney said, Wojtkowski was in attendance to present petitions for the hospital's emergency room renovations. Gurney attended the meeting to ask that the commission not honor the petitions until the noise issue is resolved.

He said Wojtkowski was "very rude," saying prospective homeowners should have done their due diligence before purchasing homes in the vicinity of the power plant. The commission was understanding with homeowners, Gurney said, and recommended that they have another meeting with the hospital.

The meeting happened. It included Gurney, other residents, Mayor James Beck and Wojtkowski. It got a little heated at times, Gurney said. He recalls Wojtkowski saying the hospital, as a commercial entity, does not have to comply with residential code.

Gurney contests that notion, arguing county law requires noise levels to be measured from the type of property onto which the noise has traveled—in this case, residential—and not the other way around. But he said it's difficult for the county to act because it would first have to undertake the difficult task of determining what the base level of noise would be without the AC units.

"The bottom line is I, as sort of the David in the Goliath story, feel like we have to keep the pressure up," he said. That's especially true as the hospital moves forward with its renovation work, Gurney said.

On Monday, . He appeared optimistic that the hospital would help on the issue.

"We will stay vigilant on it," Beck said.

Hospital discusses efforts to work with Yale Avenue neighborhood

Wojtkowski said he began working with residents on the noise issue in August or September of 2010. He recalls meeting with residents twice outside of city meetings, once last fall and once this spring.

He said the first meeting happened after residents objected to P&Z commission approval of millions of dollars in hospital renovations—an objection Wojtkowski said was "kind of bizarre"—until the hospital addressed the noise concerns.

The P&Z commission recommended that Wojtkowski meet with the residents, so he did. There, he committed to adding insulation and other features aimed at reducing the sound level coming from the 40-year-old cooling plant. He said the hospital probably spent more than $110,000 to accomplish those goals.

"We met that commitment," Wojtkowski said. As a result, the cooling facility experienced "a reduction of 40 times the sound level" that it previously emitted, he said.

But he acknowledges that the most recent sound study indicates that sound only dropped by a decibel at the property line and that residents are still "significantly unhappy" with the noise level.

He attended the meeting this spring that included the mayor and Yale Avenue residents and made further commitments: The hospital will have engineers investigate every reasonable and affordable way to reduce noise "with an objective of totally complying with St. Louis County noise ordinances," Wojtkowski said.

The first step will be to determine where the hospital stands in terms of compliance with the county code. He points out that St. Mary's has never been cited by the city or the county for noise violations. While the hospital can focus on remedying the noise issued from its facilities, it can't control for other environmental factors such as traffic on Highway 40 or Clayton Road that might also contribute to the sound at the property line.

The hospital will consider implementing the recommendations made in the sound study, such as installing a sound screen and whisper quiet fans, once engineers have performed additional research, Wojtkowski said. Additional technology to cut down on the noise could cost as much as $500,000, Wojtkowski said, and at least some of the work would be done during winter, when the AC units are not functioning.

"We made a commitment last spring, we've done everything we said we would do and we've made a further commitment to continue working on it," Wojtkowski said. "And we respect the fact that the noise emanating from that plant is annoying to the residents, and we will do whatever we can and whatever we can afford to do to continue to remediate the situation. I think we're trying to be a good neighbor, and I hope that they'll do the same in return."

History of noise issues aside, resident optimistic change will come

When Paul April has company over and wants to open a window for a bit of fresh air, he has to weigh the decision. That's because he knows there will be extra noise in the room thanks to the air-conditioning units at St. Mary's.

April bought his house on Yale Avenue in 1989. It sits across the street from the  hospital.

And since the first summer he lived in the house, he said, he can recall it emitting noise.

"It has certainly been a concern of mine the entire 22 years I've been here," April said. Conversations he's had with other neighbors indicate the issue predates that.

The noise sometimes makes it difficult to have a conversation with a neighbor on an adjacent porch or the sidewalk.

In the early 1990s, April and other homeowners formed the South Forest Park Hills Neighborhood Association because of noise and other concerns related to St. Mary's. Among other plans, the hospital intended to build an electric substation at the top of the street.

Discussions ended in the mid-90s. At the time, April recalls, St. Mary's  representatives promised him that when they replaced the facility's expensive heating and cooling system, they would work to reduce the noise it caused.

The system got replaced. The noise continued.

"This new system is pretty much the same in terms of noise and noise problems," April said.

In the past, community members in the Yale Avenue area successfully rallied to get the top of their street closed to unsafe traffic, stopped a strip mall from being developed nearby and kept the electric substation at the hospital less obtrusive than it could have been, April said.

He's optimistic about residents' concerns being heard this time, too. He thinks St. Mary's officials have made an effort to work with residents, which he said didn't happen in the past.

"I'm hopeful," April said. "I mean, they are still engaged in the process."

He wants the hospital to develop a plan to reduce the noise, present the plan to neighbors and the city, provide a timetable for implementing the plan and act on the plan. He thinks it's possible the problem could be gone or dramatically reduced by next summer.

At its heart, it is a quality of life issue, April said. He is hopeful St. Mary's—which he describes as a well-known community member—will honor its obligations as a good neighbor.

"We're all impacted to some degree," April said of the noise.

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