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They've Had an Earful

Garden Grove Residents Battle for Decades for a Wall to Buffer Freeway Noise

June 19, 2000|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If silence is golden, then nothing glitters on Anthony Avenue in Garden Grove.

The residents of this west side neighborhood live with the Garden Grove Freeway, which abuts the backyards of about 130 houses. There is no sound wall to block noise because the houses were built before the freeway was constructed in 1966.

Frustrated homeowners like Irene Alex, a resident since 1963, have battled state and county bureaucrats for more than three decades to get a wall built.

"A couple of years ago I gave up. I wasn't getting anywhere," Alex said. "I talked to a man at Caltrans for 10 years. Then he retired. Nothing was ever done. Nobody listened to us."

Lois Gergen and her husband, Virgil, have been residents since 1973. They spent $64 on a decibel meter from Radio Shack to record the noise level in their backyard. On a recent weekday, the meter registered 70 at noon, not a peak traffic time.

Caltrans officials say 66 is the maximum level considered safe for humans living near most freeways. One woman swears the high noise level caused her dog to go deaf.

"Some readings have been as high as 75," said Lois Gergen, 79. "This is the best toy we've gotten each other this year."

Gergen has not used her backyard in years. She cannot remember when the family last cooked a steak on the sturdy brick barbecue. It serves as a planter instead, with begonias adorning its front and sides.

The noise is so bad that Gergen sleeps with bright orange ear plugs. Her neighbors, Connie and Vince Naranjo, joke that Virgil Gergen did not know what all the fuss was about until he began wearing hearing aids three years ago.

"The day he got the hearing aids, he walked across the street and asked me, 'Wow! Has the freeway always been this loud?' " Vince Naranjo said.

Some homeowners joke that the noise also has some benefits.

"We have no problems with guests overstaying their visit," said Connie Naranjo, who has lived in her house since 1979.

"If you live here, you don't have to worry about people dropping in unexpectedly for a few days," Alex said.

The homes on Anthony Avenue are part of the Garden Park tract built in the 1950s and early 1960s. They are spacious and well appointed, with nicely trimmed lawns.

It was an idyllic place to raise a family, Alex said. That is, until the freeway was built.

Tired of being ignored by Caltrans, the Orange County Transportation Authority and other transportation agencies, the residents formed the West Garden Grove Residents' Assn. three years ago to press their cause for a sound wall. The group has its own Web site at http://www.geocities.com/wggra.

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Caltrans spokeswoman Rose Orem said the agency is familiar with the Anthony Avenue group, but she said sound walls are no longer its responsibility.

Legislation passed in 1998 transferred the responsibility for building sound walls to local transportation agencies like OCTA, Orem said.

Before that time, she said, Anthony Avenue was on a statewide sound wall priority list, but it was "pretty close to the bottom of the list."

OCTA spokesman Dave Simpson said he too is familiar with "the folks from Anthony Avenue." Simpson said the homeowners will get a sound wall, but only if plans to expand the Garden Grove Freeway--a $250-million project--go forward.

"Right now, that's the only way they'll get the wall," Simpson said. "I know it's incredibly loud out there because I've heard the noise. We totally understand their frustrations. The widening of [the Garden Grove Freeway] is one of our priority projects."

Officials from both agencies said that noise tests have been done as part of the environmental report. However, neither agency would reveal the decibel readings registered by the tests.

The irony of the situation is not lost on Anthony Avenue residents.

"They're telling us that the only way they'll build the wall is if they're allowed to widen the freeway, put in more lanes so more cars and trucks can use it," said George Brietigam, association vice president.

However, Simpson could not offer a target date for the freeway project's beginning or completion. OCTA is working on an environmental impact report that will be available by year's end, he said.

Residents are leery of the plans to widen the freeway. There is so little room for expansion between the shoulder of the westbound lanes and their backyards that Alex and others fear they will be forced to sell their homes to accommodate the freeway and a sound wall.

"I've put off painting my house, because I didn't want to paint it and lose it through eminent domain," she said. "But I've been fighting this fight since 1963 and nothing's happened. I figured it'll be at least another five years before a decision on the project will be made. . . . They're painting my house as we speak."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sounding Off

Residents of Anthony Avenue in Westminster have tried for years to have a sound wall built that would help block vehicle noise from the Garden Grove Freeway, which can top 70 decibels.

Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times

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