Mission Hospital in Asheville
Mission Hospital in Asheville at night. Courtesy of Mission Health

Residents living near one North Carolina hospital complex are upset by chronic loud noise. The hospital’s response has upset them further.

The Kenilworth Residents Association in Asheville has been trying to get Mission Health to mitigate what the residents call excessive noise from mechanical plants coming from both the Mission and St. Joseph’s campuses.

The two campuses are in central Asheville, south of downtown and north of the Biltmore Village commercial district. The Kenilworth neighborhood is directly east of the hospital complex.

Reb Haizlip, a member of the association, said the mechanical plants on both campuses have been producing noise levels that have become disturbing to residents in the western portion of the neighborhood.

Both the neighborhood and hospitals have existed side by side for many years, but over the last 18 months, Haizlip said the noise has created a serious problem, which his group has asked hospital executives to remedy.

The neighborhood group initially filed a complaint with the city of Asheville under its noise ordinance. But Mission asked the residents to withdraw the complaint, offering to address the issues they had raised, Haizlip said.

On Nov. 13, 2017, the neighbors sent an email to the city, formally withdrawing the complaint they had made to the city’s Noise Ordinance Board of Appeals. Haizlip, writing for the neighborhood group, told the city that Mission had offered to form a committee to include Kenilworth residents, with the objective of studying ways to reduce the noise level.

Talks, solutions, and impasse

Both sides agree that they made some progress at first.

“We engaged willingly and agreeably in a process to examine the nature of the problem,” Haizlip said. “It’s a process we’ve been in since January.”

Mission Health Senior Vice President Sonya Greck said her company worked with the neighbors to identify seven possible sources of sound being heard by residents in the neighborhood.

“The goal of the team is to work together to identify sound sources and assess whether there are any potential, reasonable changes,” she said.

The residents met with Mission every two weeks. Mission remedied three maintenance issues and placed insulation around another problem area, which had a positive effect, Haizlip said.

But the neighbors have more recently become disillusioned with the talks. Haizlip said the sides seemed to reach an impasse. Talks have currently been suspended until June.

Greck pointed to the progress made as the company worked with neighbors. “The sounds we investigated were predominantly identified as continuous source sounds generated by mechanical equipment rather than the more sporadic noises, such as generated by ambulance sirens or helicopter departures or arrivals,” Greck said.

There were originally seven areas generating excess sound, and now there are only three. “Our neighbors noted that these steps made a noticeable difference in the sound levels they are experiencing,” Greck said.

Greck said the hospital hired an acoustical consulting firm, Blue Ridge Research and Consulting to analyze the neighborhood’s concern. The firm measured the sound output in several locations at Mission and in the Kenilworth neighborhood. The changes Mission implemented were recommendations from Blue Ridge.

The hospital has implemented several changes and those include improving the coverage of an existing sound barrier between a sound source and the neighborhood. The other changes were:

  • Rerouted the flight patterns of helicopters carrying emergency patients;
  • Replaced the fan in the parking deck exhaust tower;
  • Replaced a motor on the radiology roof;
  • Worked with the Mission Tower architects to utilize quiet HVAC units;
  • Lowered the flow rate of the radiology HVAC units; and
  • Currently evaluating a revision to the ductwork on the radiology roof.

But neighbors are unhappy with the lack of progress on the issues that couldn’t be fixed as easily. Haizlip and other neighbors are concerned about whether the hospital has been acting in good faith in asking them to withdraw their complaint and conducting negotiations.

Earlier this year, Mission Health announced intensions to be sold to Tennessee-based health-care conglomerate HCA, which would move the local hospital properties from nonprofit to for-profit status. Neighbors wonder what will happen after that and whether HCA is aware of the ongoing dispute, since the official complaint was withdrawn and is no longer on the record.

Greck said she does not think the sale should affect Mission’s work with the Kenilworth residents.

“The timeline for concluding our PI (Performance Improvement) Team is this summer, prior to the HCA timeline,” Greck said. “We do not believe the HCA process will impact our collaborative, evidence-based process at all.”

Next step could include lawsuit

Although they still have time to work with Mission to find and possibly reduce some of the other problem areas, the association has not determined its next step.

“We have not decided what our course of action would be,” Haizlip said. “We haven’t yet gathered to determine our course.”

Other options include going back to the city and working through the noise ordinance board of appeals complaint process. The other avenue, Haizlip said, would be for the association to file a nuisance lawsuit.

Perceived weakness in the Asheville noise ordinance is one reason neighbors might choose the legal route.

“This (noise) is a public health threat,” Haizlip said. “This is not just an Asheville or Kenilworth problem. The Asheville noise ordinance is written for a low-key community.… It’s not written to fight against industrial and commercial noise.”

The city’s noise ordinance, last amended in 2012 based on recommendations from the city’s public safety committee, is enforced by the Asheville Police Department. Monetary penalties for violating the ordinance range from $50 for the first offense to $300 for the fourth and subsequent occurrences.

Other North Carolina counties have different structures to noise ordinances. In Charlotte, for instance, a specific section in the city’s noise ordinance addresses chronic commercial noise with penalties that could be as high as $1,000. Asheville’s ordinance does not have a specific section dedicated to commercial establishments.

Across the country, the problem has resulted in some very steep fines. For example, Portland, Oregon, has fines up to $5,000 for each violation of the city’s noise ordinance.

Correction: An earlier version misstated Mission Health’s proposed relationship with HCA. Mission Health has announced an intent to be sold to HCA.

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Ben Ledbetter is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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