Costs, supplies uncertain for Fort Smith homebuilders with noise-related moratorium

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,996 views 

The F-35

With fighter jets returning to Fort Smith next year, area home builders know they must be more selective about materials and design to mitigate sound transmission in certain areas of Fort Smith, but they are uncertain what this will mean for housing costs and supplies.

“We don’t exactly know what it is going to cost,” said Rocky Walker, president of the Greater Fort Smith Association of Home Builders and board member of the Arkansas Home Builders Association. “It’s a fluid situation right now. We don’t know what the cost increases are going to be. We don’t know if supplies will be impacted.”

And it’s not just home builders in the dark. Walker said manufacturers of supplies, including window manufacturers in the area are also waiting to see what needs to be done.

On Oct. 24, the Fort Smith Board of Directors adopted Ordinance 88-23 extending and expanding a temporary moratorium on residential construction. The ordinance, drafted in response to the anticipated military needs at the Ebbing Air National Guard Base, calls for the expansion of the land area covered by a moratorium enacted June 21, 2022, for two more years or until December 2025. The expanded moratorium area allows for residential construction if the construction complies with sound attenuation standards and allows structures destroyed by fire to be rebuilt if the construction complies with sound attenuation standards.

“Before this requirement, builders may not have needed to focus as much on sound insulation or meet specific STC (Sound Transmission Class) standards in their construction projects,” said Josh Buchfink, public relations manager for the City of Fort Smith.

The city has put out a “Best Practices and Tools for Sound Insulation Planning” that includes information on construction materials, room characteristics, construction methods, roof improvements and more.

This information ranges from broad statements like, “Understand how to use Sound Transmission Class (STC) ratings to evaluate construction methods and materials. Two different construction methods or components may have identical STC ratings and yet may block aircraft noise differently because of their response to different sound frequencies” to more specific ones like “consider using brick and concrete block walls, which generally need little to no modifications” and “the use of cathedral ceilings is strongly discouraged for homes exposed to aircraft noise. Attics provide a more efficient noise buffer than cathedral ceilings or at built-up roofs.

The Board of Directors passed an ordinance June 21, 2022, to enact a temporary moratorium on the issuance of new residential housing permits to avoid potential noise issues when fighter jets return to the Fort Smith Regional Airport.

It was announced March 15 that U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall signed the final “record of decision” to place a foreign military pilot training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base located adjacent to the Fort Smith Regional Airport. Ebbing, which is home to the 188th Wing in Fort Smith, was selected on June 8, 2021, by then-acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

The ordinance states that the anticipated, expanded military use of the Fort Smith Regional Airport necessitated a now completed evaluation of noise especially as it affects expanded residential use of real property in the vicinity of the Fort Smith Regional Airport. The anticipated, expanded military use of the airport required a new noise study conducted pursuant to FAA guidelines in the FAA’s FY 2023 grant year for the Fort Smith Regional Airport, the proposed ordinance states. And it requires an additional Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) expected to be completed in 24 months.

The city wants to study and evaluate the impact of further residential development, appropriate zoning and noise regulations, and issues that will affect future growth and development of the area within its jurisdiction, according to information in the ordinance.

The F-35 is louder than the F-16 fighters that were once based at Fort Smith.

“On takeoff, the F-35 is estimated to have a maximum sound level of 115db at 1,000 feet above ground level. This is 21 decibels louder than the maximum sound level estimated for the F-16,” according to a December 2012 Public Health Review report from the Vermont Department of Health about F-35 planes being based at the Burlington Air Guard Station.

Walker said he hopes to work with the city in the next few weeks to come up with cost projects about the increase in cost for a 1,500-square-foot house, along with those for 2,000-square feet, 2,500-square-feet and 3,000-square-feet homes.

“It will be broad. No two homes cost exactly the same to build, depending on materials used and design and more. But we can come with a cost comparison for the typical house of a certain square footage,” Walker said. “We’ve been saying we want to do this, but there are always more things than you can get done. Right now, we’re focusing on getting people in their homes in time for Christmas.”

Walker said home builders wanting to start projects in the moratorium area are approaching it all very carefully.

“We are supporting this (the moratorium) because we believe in the yellow brick road they have promised,” Walker said.

Col. Rob Ator, USAF (Ret.), the Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs, has said people with the mission should be here by September 2024, though he noted some will be arriving “two or three months before that.”

“We’re working on developments, on rentals, on single-family homes. They have said they need a lot,” Walker said. “But here’s the thing. Government will always be in business. Small businesses may not be. We need to know what we’re dealing with. We need them to do their job.”

He said he believes that all newly built homes in Fort Smith will have stricter noise reduction guidelines going forward whether that be in the form of city requirements or ones requested by the homeowner.