When a train comes by the city’s Northwood Hills neighborhood, residents are relieved. It’s actually muffling the sound from an aircraft engine being operated practically in their backyard.
But at Architectural Testing’s new headquarters on Electronics Way in West Palm Beach, company Director Jeffrey McGovern says the occasional noise that has resulted in complaints to city hall is worth the trouble for West Palm Beach.
McGovern said his company, which left Riviera Beach in November after 19 years for a site twice the size in West Palm Beach, is attracting clients from around the country, including some from similar facilities in Miami.
Edward Kearney, president of Kearny Commercial Realty who brought the company to West Palm Beach, calls it a “real coup for the city of West Palm Beach.”
Architectural Testing has a 24,000-square-foot facility on 3 acres where it builds mock-ups of buildings and tests whether they can withstand hurricane-force winds, torrential downpours and other potential natural disasters.
Developers of buildings — including a 60-story skyscraper on Park Avenue in New York and a federal building in Miami — pay the West Palm Beach company to use the exact materials that will be used in the final structure, including walls, doors, windows, roofs and skylights. Then the company tries to knock them down, undermine them — and destroy them.
One of the tests uses a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 aircraft engine that simulate winds of 85 miles per hour or stronger. It’s what’s bothering neighbors.
Northwood Hills residents complain the noise is too loud and the engine shakes not just the model buildings but also their homes.
“It makes my house tremble,” said Louis Young, who lives on 29th Street. “It’s too loud and it’s too much noise.”
Commissioners aren’t sure what they can do to stop the noise. The test site sits in an industrial use zone just west of the CSX Railroad, with the Northwood Hills homes immediately east of the tracks.
The city’s development services director, Rick Greene, visited the neighborhood Thursday and measured the noise of the operating aircraft engine at 95 decibels, but the city noise ordinance is not based on decibel levels.
Instead, it’s based on “if you cannot carry a normal conversation on your property because the noise is so loud that you cannot speak at a normal level,” City Attorney Claudia McKenna said at a March 25 commission workshop.
To which Mayor Jeri Muoio said, “I don’t know how you measure that.”
Greene said at the workshop that “if they’re in violation of the noise ordinance, we can shut them down.”
But Kearney, the broker for the property that Architectural Testing leases, said Thursday the noise ordinance is too vague.
“That would never stand up in court,” Kearney said.
McGovern said his company doesn’t run the engine daily and when it does run, it’s not an all-day event.
Patrick Workinger, who lives on 30th Street and owns four homes that he rents out, said the first time he heard the noise, it woke him up, and he thought there was a Trauma Hawk medical-services helicopter landing on the street. Workinger said he’s worried he’ll lose tenants.
On Thursday, the city’s decibel reader dropped about 10 points when the Tri-Rail train came by, apparently because the train provided a buffer to the engine sound.
McGovern acknowledged that the sound could be louder at some times than at others, depending on factors including the wind speed and how the wind is traveling.
To try to help the neighbors, he said he would consider allowing the engine to run only between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
“We have plans to help out in whatever we need to do here to make them happy, but we’re going to need some time to figure out what that is,” McGovern said. “We’re looking into whether we can do something to the prop itself to maybe quiet it or ultimately look into a test wall which can act as a barrier wall running along the east end of that property which will take time.”
Commissioner Sylvia Moffett, who represents the area, said Northwood Hills residents are trying to renovate the neighborhood but will have difficulty if the noise continues.
“It’s an inappropriate location for this type of business,” Moffett said.
Debbie Finney, who describes the noise as helicopter-like at her house one-half mile away, said, “It’s unbearable for these poor people who live around here, but it’s not the company’s fault. It’s the city’s fault for letting this happen.”
Muoio, however, said the city is stuck “between a rock and a hard place” because the area is zoned for industrial. Even if the zoning were changed, existing companies would be grandfathered in.
“I don’t think any of us would want to live near that and I think it’s not appropriate to have in the middle of a residential area,” Muoio said. “If we can get them to buffer it, wall it, do whatever they need to do so the residents don’t hear it, I think we should do that obviously and it seems to me they were willing to take a look at that.”