State builds a berm to block noise for autistic boy

Money-saving move might be a win-win; family is still skeptical

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

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Dan Weissenfluh with Tapani Underground moves dirt to build a noise-reducing berm near the new state Highway 500 interchange at St. Johns Boulevard. Traffic on the new offramp has proved overwhelmingly noisy for a boy who lives in the green house in the background.

Contractors working for the state are moving mountains of earth in an effort to ease the impact of a new freeway ramp on a Vancouver couple and their autistic son.

The contractors have been creating an earthen berm between a new St. Johns Road offramp from state Highway 500 and the home of Joel and Melissa Dodge. When complete, the berm could be up to eight feet tall and be landscaped with low-maintenance native plants.

The project for the Washington State Department of Transportation was launched this week after news of the Dodge family’s plight was made public in The Columbian, several Portland-area television stations and a radio station in Seattle.

The Dodges’ 6-year-old son, Dylan, is autistic. Loud noises — such as heavy traffic — overwhelm him and cause him to “act out,” his mother said. After learning of the boy’s condition during construction, the agency took the unprecedented step of relocating the family to a rental home on a quiet street during the busiest phase of the $45 million interchange project adjacent to their home.

Now that the work is nearly complete, however, the family is facing the prospect of moving back to a house that is now a stone’s throw away from a freeway offramp.

They asked WSDOT to build a sound wall or buy their house outright, but the agency said it couldn’t do either.

So officials came up with a third option — a berm.

“Folks read the story and saw the TV stories that ran and wrote to let us know they were concerned,” said Abbi Russell, WSDOT spokesperson. “We’ve been talking internally about this to see if there’s something we can do.”

Russell said a similar berm was used successfully to reduce noise to homeowners living along Highway 14 in Camas. The agency measured the space between the Dodge property and the new ramp and determined there was room to build a berm. The height of the berm will vary, and its thickness hasn’t been determined.

Officials would like to extend the berm onto a swath of agency-owned land between the Dodges’ property line and the freeway right of way so the berm can be as high as possible. The Dodges are also consulting with their real estate agent about extending the berm closer to their driveway.

“The Dodges have been maintaining that swatch of land for the past 10 years,” said Russell. “We’d like to work with them to be good neighbors.”

The dirt used to build the berm was already on the site. It was excavated when the interchange project’s required storm water filtration pond was created.

“The berm project doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything,” Russell said. “In fact, it saves a little bit of money.” She explained that normally the contractor would haul the dirt from the construction site and would have to pay to dispose of it.

The Dodge family remains unconvinced.

As the family stood with agency officials and about a dozen neighbors on the narrow swath of land between the Dodge driveway and the new offramp on Thursday, Joel Dodge, Dylan’s father, nodded toward the mounded dirt.

“It’s a band-aid,” he said.

The Dodge family will live in the rental home provided by WSDOT through November. In the meantime, a different family is house-sitting at the Dodge’s Z Street house.

“I can’t bring Dylan back to this house,” added Melissa Dodge, as she stood with Dylan. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I’m not giving up.”

When asked if after November the family would continue living in the quieter rental house and then rent out their Z Street house, she said, “I’d have to find renters who are deaf and blind.”

“We’re unsure what we can do,” she added. “I’d love to see some wealthy person come in and buy our house.”

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4530; http://twitter.com/col_hoods; susan.parrish@columbian.com.