Study to monitor airport noise levels before and after tree work

Bob Richardson was giving a speech in April during a rally opposing tree-cutting at the Hilton Head Island Airport when he was drowned out by the roar of an aircraft soaring overhead.

"It will make a bad situation intolerable," Richardson, president of the Palmetto Hall Plantation Property Owners Association, said of work slated to begin in October to remove and trim more than 1,000 trees on the north end of the runway.

Richardson and other neighboring property owners, including a historic church congregation, say tree trimming and removal will eliminate a natural sound barrier, leading to increased noise from airport traffic. The result, he fears, will lower quality of life and property values for those living near the runway.

To help allay those fears, Beaufort County and the Town of Hilton Head Island have agreed to pay for a $50,000 noise study in the area.

Noise levels will be recorded Sept. 11, 12 and 13 prior to the tree trimming and removal. Additional noise levels will be recorded after work has been completed, said county airports manager Paul Andres. A public meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Hilton Head library, 11 Beach City Road, to explain the study.

The tree removal and trimming is being done to comply with federal regulations prohibiting obstructions within the runway's approach slope.

Observers will record noise generated from arrivals, departures and run-ups at the runway from four locations at the north end of the airport. Measurements will be taken at two sites at the same time on opposites sides of the runway. An observer will also be in the air traffic control tower keeping notes on runway use, time, wind direction, aircraft type and estimated altitudes, according to a letter sent to the town and county from Talbert & Bright Inc., the aviation consultant overseeing the study.

If sound levels increase significantly as a result of tree trimming and removal, the consultant will make a recommendation on ways to lessen noise for nearby properties, said Charles Cousins, town community development director.

Regardless, smaller trees that do not have the potential to grow into the federally mandated approach slope will be planted to create a buffer along Beach City Road and St. James Baptist Church property, Cousins said. The re-planting will depend on the number and size of trees removed, he said.

The town and county have also paid for an on-site arborist to guide tree trimming and removal.

"The intent is to try and limit the amount of trees removed as much as possible, but at the same time get trees out of the slope," Cousins said.

The county Public Facilities Committee voted Tuesday to recommend that County Council approve a $469,948 contract on Sept. 13 with AllCare Tree Surgery of Bluffton for tree trimming and removal on airport property.

Andres said 95 percent of the project cost will be paid for through a $1.24 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. The airport will pitch in $11,749 from its budget, with the rest coming from a state grant.

A second phase will include trimming and removing trees on property surrounding the airport, including Palmetto Hall and large oak trees at St. James Baptist Church.

Andres said work on that phase has not been scheduled, but will likely occur later this year.

About 6.7 acres of mature trees immediately north of the runway on airport property will be clear-cut as part of the project.

Town Council amended its ordinances earlier this year to allow trimming and removal at the county-owned airport, despite anger from nearby residents, including Richardson.

Though happy to see the town and county's willingness to pay for the noise study, Richardson said he's skeptical of the outcome.

"If the noise levels increase significantly, which we suspect that they will, then the question is, 'What will the town and county do to mitigate this increased noise?'

"Therein lies the $64,000 question," he said.