Offramp leads to frustration for family

Parents say new St. Johns interchange has made home uninhabitable for autistic son

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

Published:

 
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Dylan Dodge is an active 6-year-old boy who likes playing in his backyard. But the backyard of his family's home is no longer a safe haven because state Highway 500 road construction and a new St. Johns offramp have made his yard noisy β€” and perhaps not even safe.

Dylan is autistic. Loud, constant noise causes Dylan to "act out" said his mother, Melissa Dodge.

When Dylan's parents, Joel and Melissa Dodge, bought their home 10 years ago, the modest two-bedroom cottage built in 1950 was tucked away, the last house at the end of a quiet dead-end street in the Rose Village neighborhood. The highway was in the distance and far below the grade of their yard. Tall trees on the other side of their fence kept traffic noise down.

But then the Washington State Department of Transportation announced an interchange was going to be constructed at the highway's intersection with St. Johns β€” including an offramp at the same level as their house and just a few yards from their back fence. Then the tall trees were removed; there was no longer space for them between the offramp and the Dodge yard.

The construction noise at the house left Dylan unable to control himself at school. Therapeutic measures helped temporarily, but the family had to move his younger brother to another room in case Dylan acted out against him.

Melissa Dodge contacted WSDOT well in advance of construction about the proposed offramp and how profoundly the noise had affected Dylan. Officials asked for testimony from one of Dylan's doctors and temporarily moved the family during construction. They agreed to pay to move the family to a rental house, pay rent and utilities through November 2012, when they expected the noisiest part of construction to be finished, and pay to move them back to their old house.

At the end of February, the Dodge family moved to a quieter rental house in east Vancouver. They found a family to house-sit during construction so that their house wouldn't be vulnerable to vandalism.

After the move to the quieter setting, Dylan moved to a different school, and his challenges there decreased.

"Dylan doesn't have the violent outbursts he used to," said Melissa Dodge. "He's doing reading and math at his new school, which he refused to do before."

The Dodge family's contract with WSDOT ends Nov. 30. Even though both parents work, the family can't afford to pay both their rent and their $900 mortgage.

They are concerned about both of their sons if they move back to their old house. Not only is the yard noisy, with cars exiting the highway just on the other side of their fence, but the couple worries about a vehicle taking the ramp too quickly and careening through the guardrail and fence and into their yard.

The Dodges considered selling their house so they could afford to buy a house in a quieter area. But when housing values tanked, they found themselves $55,000 underwater on their mortgage. They owe about $128,000, and its value is only $73,000. With the offramp so close, they don't believe they can rent their house, either.

The Dodges have asked WSDOT to buy their property, but Bart Gernhart, WSDOT Region engineer, said the ambient noise level is too low to justify a noise wall, and if the agency can't use the property, it can't buy it.

"We don't have the ability to purchase homes because of people's health situation," Gernhart said. "It doesn't mean they can't sell their home."

Melissa Dodge wrote letters explaining the problem to elected officials, the Arc of Clark County and Special Needs in Washington, D.C. No one offered a solution, and none of the elected officials visited the Dodge home, stood in the yard and saw how close the offramp is to their property.

WSDOT did buy out a row of mobile homes near the Dodge property because they were in the path of the new offramp. WSDOT also constructed a sound barrier wall near the mobile home park.

"Because of the high density, the mobile home park met the minimum thresholds for noise levels, so that justified a noise wall," said Gernhart.

"She's in a tough spot, there's no doubt about it," said Abbi Russell, WSDOT spokesperson. Russell said that WSDOT's measurements found the noise level at the Dodge home has been reduced with the construction of the offramp.

Joel and Melissa Dodge disagree. Meanwhile, they're stuck.

"Come here. Stand in our yard," challenged Melissa Dodge. "Imagine your children playing here."

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