Train Dreck

Railroad noise and bureaucracy can't stymie a hearty bunch from Pompano Beach

Soon after the loud couplings commenced in March last year, Gillis complained to John Spahlinger, president of the Cypress Bend Condo III Association. Spahlinger suggested Gillis contact the Florida Department of Transportation and started referring other complaints to her. Gillis collected signatures during homeowner meetings at the complex. The FDOT ducked the complaint, suggesting Gillis contact the Yelvington company about the noise. William Thomas III, Yelvington's vice president of industrial development and operations, wrote Gillis that the night operations were "not requested or condoned by the company." He later told Gillis that the company's business had not increased so much that it would account for the increased rail activity, she maintains. (Thomas did not return a phone message left by New Times.)

Gillis then sent CSX Transportation petitions signed by the dozens of condo and mobile home owners. Cynthia Sanborn, vice president and general manager of CSX's Florida business unit in Tampa, responded in early July that any increase in noise was due to increased business growth at Yelvington -- which contradicted Thomas's assessment. "In its simplest format," Sanborn wrote, "the train crew goes into the [Yelvington] industrial track, gathers up empty cars, and brings them back to its train. Next, loaded cars are taken back into Yelvington and spotted back to specific locations." Sanborn added that CSX, the FDOT, and Yelvington were planning a meeting to discuss possible solutions.

Because no homeowner attended the July meeting, it was predictably ineffectual. Sanborn's synopsis of the discussion in an August 2000 letter to Gillis was "that the parties see no readily apparent option that would mitigate the noise factor at this time." CSX -- and Cypress Bend residents -- would just have to wait for Tri-Rail's planned construction of a second track between West Palm Beach and Miami, projected for completion in 2005. The possibility of CSX building an additional track was brought up, but a CSX representative nixed the idea because it would be too costly, recalls Ray Holzweiss, the FDOT's manager of the South Florida Rail Corridor, who attended the gathering.

Trained to complain: John Spahlinger stands on his condo balcony, which overlooks a troublesome set of tracks
Joshua Prezant
Trained to complain: John Spahlinger stands on his condo balcony, which overlooks a troublesome set of tracks

Gillis wasn't alone in the vanguard of the battle for quiet. Through the summer of 2000, Stein lobbied the Broward County Commission to adopt a railroad-noise ordinance. The fitful nights were taking their toll on him. While addressing the commissioners during a meeting October 3, Stein collapsed at the lectern and was taken to the hospital for low blood pressure and exhaustion. Later that day the commission asked the county attorney to look into adopting federal rail-noise limits. (Local restrictions cannot be more stringent than the federal code.) An investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in November found noise levels did not exceed the standard of 92 decibels (about the level of a symphony orchestra).

Many of those plagued by the clamor now pin their hopes for peace and quiet on the noise ordinance passed by the commission in February. The job of enforcing the rule fell to Jarrett Mack, a manager with the county's Department of Planning and Environmental Protection's Air Quality Division. Mack speaks rapidly and succinctly as he explains the testing at the Cypress Bend condos. He's strikingly no-nonsense and openly expresses aggravation with what he perceives as foot-dragging by CSX and the FRA. When Mack's office requested detailed data from the FRA concerning its investigation, the agency balked and insisted the county file a Freedom of Information Act request. Meanwhile CSX did not respond to the Broward DPEP's letters until late last week -- after New Times started asking CSX questions about the slow response.

Despite the dilly-dallying of others, Mack has moved ahead with his investigation, recording some clangs and clunks as high as 120 decibels. "We have enough tests to pursue enforcement," Mack asserts. "Our director has authorized us to write a notice of violation." Both CSX and the FDOT will be cited before the end of the month. A violation carries as much as a $15,000 penalty.

Spahlinger is skeptical that such a trifling penalty will do much good. Luckily, though, the retired plumber has adapted to the rail noise better than most: "I'm deaf in one ear, and I sleep on the other," he says from a ninth-floor balcony in his building overlooking the rail line. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a lost cause.... What chance does a condo have against a multimillion-dollar corporation?"

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