Cindy Stephens says she hears it every time she steps out on her front porch in Kenilworth — a low but constant mechanical drone at frequencies that filter through the rush of traffic on nearby Biltmore Avenue. “It feels like the presence of the machine there constantly,” she explains. Even the sound of the water fountain in her front yard can’t completely mask the ceaseless hum.
The source of this noise, Stephens and her fellow members of the Kenilworth Residents Association maintain, lies directly to the west: Mission Health’s St. Joseph and Memorial campuses. In September 2017, the association filed a formal complaint against Mission Hospital with the city of Asheville. But the group withdrew its complaint, which was backed by over 100 signatures, after Mission leadership agreed to address the problem through a joint hospital/neighborhood committee.
Those talks are over now, and on July 25, the residents association filed a new complaint, alleging that the changes Mission has made to address the noise concerns haven’t eliminated the problem. In addition, the residents claim in their letter to the city (avl.mx/5at) that they have “credible reason to believe that, rather than undertake serious efforts to reduce its noise emissions, Mission is running out the clock.”
While Mission points to 12 improvements made as a result of those talks (see sidebar, “Noise Reduction Efforts”), association member Reb Haizlip contends that the changes were relatively minor and don’t fully address the underlying issues. The health system’s true purpose in agreeing to establish the joint committee, he suggests, was to minimize additional public controversy as it navigated sensitive negotiations with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and HCA Healthcare.
“Mission could have simply said, ‘Buzz off: We don’t care,’” Haizlip points out. “Instead, they took us through this really long, manipulative process and wasted a lot of people’s time, mine included, on trying to accomplish a goal that they never intended to do.”
Throughout repeated requests for comment, Mission Health personnel declined to talk about most of the neighborhood’s specific allegations, citing the “formal proceeding initiated by a few Kenilworth residents.” In a general response about the noise issue, however, Rowena Buffett Timms, senior vice president for government and community relations, said Mission representatives “have been and are engaged and focused on a win/win solution that meets reasonable expectations for those choosing to live in an urban environment.
“Mission Health has demonstrated a great deal of understanding and has gone to great lengths to address the concerns of the Kenilworth residents while still providing lifesaving treatment for our community members in Western North Carolina,” Timms added. “We scheduled these meetings in order to have open dialogue and ongoing communication with the Kenilworth Residents Association.”
Meanwhile, other Asheville neighborhoods are also fighting their own battles concerning business-related noise and are exploring ways to give residents more leverage with alleged noise polluters.
Even before the September 2017 noise complaint, Mission officials had met informally with residents association representatives to discuss noise in the area, and from January through April 2018, the parties held biweekly formal meetings. But while Haizlip acknowledges that the talks made some progress, he says the neighborhood had to fight hard for every change the hospital agreed to make.
“We are frustrated by Mission’s resistance to commit to a permanent solution to this problem and perplexed, given the technical simplicity of installing noise abatement measures to block noise at the source,” the residents explain in their complaint to city officials.
Haizlip, an architect whose specialty is designing institutional facilities such as museums and educational projects, says he personally alerted Mission staff to a number of key issues.
“They changed an exhaust fan on top of the garage tower because I went up there and told the facilities guy, ‘You’ve got a bad bearing,’” he recalls. He also takes credit for calling their attention to a problem with the ductwork on top of the radiology building, which they subsequently addressed.
Haizlip says he even drafted a design for changes to the chiller energy plant at the St. Joseph campus, the mechanical facility that’s closest to Kenilworth. Mission officials say they constructed a wall to buffer the plant’s cooling towers and reinforced it with additional sound-absorbent materials, but Haizlip claims those changes constitute only half of the needed work.
“They’ve tried to satisfy us in dealing with these isolated points, but they can’t really get to the overall problem,” says Haizlip. “I don’t think that they’ve been prepared to admit the fact that there’s a larger problem.”
In May 2017, Mission hired Blue Ridge Research and Consulting, a local acoustical engineering firm, to conduct a study of noise emissions from both campuses and measure sound levels at its property lines. While Mission officials say they made changes “over and above” the consultant’s recommendations, Stephens counters that the association wasn’t consulted about the study’s methodology and hasn’t been allowed to see the final report. Both Mission and the consulting firm also declined to share the report with Xpress.
“They didn’t take our input. They didn’t measure where we asked them to measure,” charges Stephens. “When you don’t take a community’s input when you’re trying to solve a community health issue, it’s ridiculous. We’re a major stakeholder in this.”
Josh Mellon, the lead consultant on the team that conducted the sound study, turned down an interview request, saying he may be called to participate in formal proceedings concerning the noise complaint. Mission Health Senior Vice President Sonya Greck, who led the health system’s representatives in meetings with Kenilworth residents, also declined to comment through a spokesperson.
A Sept. 19 email forwarded by Haizlip to Xpress, addressed from Mission Health board chair Dr. John Ball, noted that “The western Kenilworth neighbors have chosen to live in an urban environment that borders a very busy traffic thoroughfare, as well as the hospital. Nevertheless, the only acoustic experts who have studied this situation have concluded that the neighborhood noise levels during sample periods ‘were significantly quieter than the permissible decibel levels in relevant, comparable N.C. noise ordinances.’” At press time, Ball had not responded to multiple requests seeking confirmation of or comment on those remarks.
Whistleblower weighs in
Meanwhile, on April 8, Haizlip reports that a whistleblower “informed us that Mission had entered the process with the distinct intent to simply stall our efforts to be public about this.”
In a July 4 letter (avl.mx/5at) to Josh Stein, North Carolina’s attorney general, Kenilworth residents summarized the informant’s claims of bad faith. “We have credible reason to believe Mission Hospital has engaged the neighborhood in a disingenuous process to offer relief, while buying time to avoid negative media coverage, negotiate with HCA and sell the hospital before committing to noise abatement,” they wrote.
Xpress spoke directly with the whistleblower, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. The informant says that at the time of the association’s first formal complaint last year, Mission was in the midst of a much-publicized spat with Blue Cross and was worried about further damage to its public image.
“Mission didn’t want to have any additional issues or any additional information in the news, so [Greck’s] goal was to get [Haizlip] to hold the noise complaint with the city,” the source claims. “Her whole motivation has just been to delay, delay, delay until they go away.”
The whistleblower also alleges that Mission is misleading the public about the extent of its attempts to address neighborhood concerns. The most egregious inaccuracy, the informant claims, concerns a dehumidifier on the radiology building. Mission says it replaced an old unit with a newer, quieter model in response to residents’ concerns, but the source maintains that the dehumidifier was an addition, not a replacement, and that the recently installed unit may have actually increased the total noise coming from hospital facilities.
Greck did not personally address any Xpress request for comment on the whistleblower’s claims. In Mission’s only direct response to the informant’s assertions, Timms wrote that “The alleged source has made statements that are not accurate.”
On Aug. 31, Mission Health’s board approved the institution’s sale to HCA Healthcare for about $1.5 billion plus additional expenditures by the buyer. Attorney General Stein must now sign off on the deal; his office’s review process is expected to wrap up by the end of November.
According to Haizlip, the talks between Mission and the residents association began to unravel when the hospital postponed a meeting in late April. After that, he says, they didn’t meet again until June 25, a session he characterizes as frustrating. And after Haizlip approached Mission with the whistleblower’s allegations in a July 20 email, he says, the health system cut off regular communication with the residents association. “Clearly, there’s a strategy recalculation here,” Haizlip maintains.
In an Aug. 6 email to Xpress, Haizlip shared an email he’d received from Dr. Ron Paulus, president and CEO of Mission Health, that same day. Haizlip maintains that it’s the only direct communication Kenilworth residents have received from hospital staff since July 20. “While it is unfortunate that you have not felt that our many, many actions and dutiful engagement are acceptable to you, we have done more than what a comparable organization would do given the relatively low starting noise levels,” the CEO wrote.
“While disappointed in your choice to pursue a complaint, if that’s your decision, while incredibly regretful, we’ll have to both see what happens,” Paulus continued. “Again, I’m very sorry that you are not happy, but if one is going to live in an urban environment, one should expect normal urban noise levels.”
Stephens, who has a doctorate in nursing practice, says Paulus’ position is particularly upsetting given current research on the health effects of noise pollution. Both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she points out, have tied chronic environmental noise to higher levels of stress and cardiovascular disease.
A 2011 report from the WHO Regional Office for Europe, for example, estimates that Western Europeans lose at least 1 million healthy life years annually due to the effects of traffic-related noise alone. Specific estimated impacts of that noise include over 1,600 annual nonfatal heart attacks in Germany and over 24,000 annual lost healthy life years in the Netherlands due to sleep disturbance.
On a personal level, Stephens notes that her neighbors have complained about disrupted sleep and have stopped opening their windows or reduced the amount of time they spend outdoors to avoid the incessant noise. “It’s just absolutely ironic that a community health system will not take us at our word that we’ve been upset at this,” she says.
The Sept. 19 email attributed to Ball said that Mission’s board chair would be willing to explore “a mutually acceptable resolution” with hospital management. Such negotiations would be contingent on Kenilworth residents providing “two types of information that I have thus far not seen”: specific acceptable noise levels and specific “physical or mechanical remedies the neighborhood proposes, evidence for how they would reduce noise in a significant way and what your best cost estimates are for implementing each of those remedies.”
Responding to Xpress by email on Sept. 20, Haizlip said the neighborhood does not intend to change its approach “until we see some evidence of real intent from Mission” and will maintain the formal noise complaint. “We believe Dr. Ball is sincere and honest, but we have been down this path with the hospital administration before,” he wrote.
Limits of the law
As the residents association pursues its complaint, however, Haizlip worries that the city’s noise ordinance is insufficient to deal with industrial-scale problems. Even if the Noise Ordinance Board of Appeals does find Mission guilty of a violation at the hearing, currently scheduled for 3 p.m. in the Chief’s Conference Room at the Asheville Police Department on Thursday, Oct. 25, its judgment would be limited to a $50 citation for a first offense, with a maximum fine of $300 for fourth and subsequent offenses. In 2017, Mission had total revenues of roughly $1.8 billion, according to reporting by North Carolina Health News, an independent, statewide nonprofit.
“It’s an ordinance that’s written to protect neighbors from the sorts of distractions we’re all familiar with: dogs barking, lawnmowers running at odd hours of the day, parties at people’s houses running late into the night,” says Haizlip. “It does not recognize that, because Asheville is densifying and growing at a rapid pace, we’re putting residences and commercial, industrial and institutional users into tighter spaces.”
Assistant City Attorney John Maddux points out that the ordinance “does not prevent persons from pursuing other legal remedies for damages or the abatement of noise.” Haizlip, however, contends that it’s unrealistic to expect his neighborhood group to go up against Mission in a civil nuisance lawsuit.
“The city attorney is advising David to use the court system to fight Goliath. How’s that going to work out?” asks Haizlip. “That the city would say you need to use legal means to fight a problem that should be handled by the noise ordinance is just not right.”
Meanwhile, the residents association is seeking legal support from the state attorney general. On Aug. 14, Haizlip urged neighborhood residents to send complaints to Stein’s office describing the noise and asking for Mission’s sale to be contingent on a new community benefits agreement. This binding document would allocate funds from the sale “to abate hospital noise pollution for the protection of the health and well-being of Kenilworth residents.”
Haizlip also wrote directly to HCA Healthcare on May 4 but says he received no answer. In response to an Xpress request for comment, HCA spokesperson Ed Fishbough wrote, “It’s our understanding that, while Mission Health has always been in compliance with local ordinances, they took extra steps to address the issue.”
The sound of progress
Other local neighborhood organizations, says Haizlip, have communicated with the Kenilworth Residents Association concerning their own ongoing noise problems. Through the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, he says, groups representing Montford, Oakley and Grove Park are exploring ways to strengthen the city’s ordinance.
“The noise ordinance needs to set limits on the amount of noise that can be generated at a property line. It’s common; it’s done across the country,” Haizlip explains. The city of Charlotte, for example, sets daytime and nighttime limits of 85 and 60 decibels, respectively, for noise at the edge of a commercial property.
“Let there be hospitals and small manufacturing plants and art studios and residents all living together, but respect the fact that noise is a killer, and we can’t just indiscriminately pollute,” Haizlip says.
Asheville’s current ordinance doesn’t specify what decibel levels could trigger a violation. Instead, a “noise disturbance” is defined as “any unreasonably loud and raucous sound or noise” that “endangers or injures the health or safety of humans or animals” or “disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivity.”
The ordinance was last revised in 2012, when residents pushed for stricter rules about disturbances at night and in residential areas. Asked about these issues, Maddux said that although City Council’s Public Safety Committee has briefly discussed revisions to the ordinance during the past year, he’s unaware of any current effort to change the language.
In an Aug. 24 email response to Haizlip, Mayor Esther Manheimer said it was her understanding that the Public Safety Committee would soon begin reviewing the noise ordinance and specific outstanding complaints. Two days later, she noted that Cathy Ball, the interim city manager, had discussed the Kenilworth complaint with a Mission representative. “Again, it’s likely that the ordinance may need to be amended generally, but we’re hopeful to get a handle on the Mission noise issue specifically,” Manheimer wrote.
Speaking with Xpress, Ball noted that the noise issue had come up regularly over the past six months of her standing monthly meetings with Greck to talk about general Mission Health business. She added that those conversations have primarily focused on Mission’s progress on noise abatement, not the neighborhood’s responses. “My hope is that they would’ve been able to work it out without it going to the noise appeals board,” Ball said.
Regarding the noise ordinance in general, Ball confirmed that city staff are not currently working on any revisions. She said that staff will wait for guidance from the Public Safety Committee before suggesting changes. Council member Vijay Kapoor, who doesn’t serve on the committee, chose not to comment on the Kenilworth residents’ complaint but says he’d be open to revisiting the ordinance.
“As Asheville continues to grow, concerns over quality-of-life issues such as traffic and noise are becoming more and more frequent,” he explains. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea for City Council to look at our ordinances in these areas to make sure that they’ve kept pace with how Asheville has changed.”
That position gives Haizlip hope for the future. “The greater goal of the noise ordinance is to let Asheville become a place that is diverse,” he says. “Let’s live together, but let’s coexist well together.”