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SJB discusses noise abatement for residents near Highway

Consultant David Mack warns the city might get stuck with an ugly wall if it tries to get Caltrans involved.

San Juan Bautista will consider updating the city’s fence code as several people have constructed tall fences as a way to mitigate traffic noise coming from Highway 156. 

The Planning Commission on April 6 considered adding two components to the code—allowing heights to be increased with the city’s approval, and requiring at least three feet of clearance from fire hydrants. The planning Commission voiced concerns over the broad policy and directed staff to do more research before continuing the item.

“I don’t feel comfortable should we move with this,” Planning Commissioner David Medeiros said. He added he wanted to know what rights and authority the city has to abate noise and what role, if any, the state could play. 

The current city code allows fences, walls and hedges up to eight feet on rear and side yards, with the exception of corner lots. A fence is defined in the city code as a physical barrier made of metal, brick, wood or other materials. 

City Manager Don Reynolds said the city would review any proposed fence project because it’s a health and safety issue.

“The footing and the structure would have to be reviewed with a building permit and would require a review of that nature before it’s put up,” Reynolds said.

Planning Commissioner Jackie Morris-Lopez said while she agreed there needed to be something done to mitigate the traffic noise for homes next to Highway 156, she was concerned that the proposed change was too broad. 

Reynolds said resident Cara Vonk wrote a letter suggesting to the city that the process allow for neighbors’ inputs before the city grants any permits. 

Planning Commissioner Luis Matchain said he agreed with Morris-Lopez and said it was also important to keep in mind the aesthetics of barriers. He also asked whether the city had any design guidelines for sound barriers. Reynolds said he did not think the city did but that he would look into it. 

David Mack, with Harris and Associates, acting as city engineer, said many jurisdictions allow for walls on arterial streets for a number of reasons, including privacy, and to protect the residents from car collisions. He also cautioned that, generally speaking, jurisdictions cannot install anything within the state’s right-of-way, including a fence. 

“To get Caltrans to come do a noise study, install sound mitigation, you’ll end up with a fence, you’ll end up with a wall, and you’ll end up with a cinder block wall that’s normally coated with plaster and they are not very sightly,” Mack said. 

For Commissioner Mary Bains, she said the issue was not whether or not to allow fences along Highway 156, but what kind of fence, because studies have shown noise can increase blood pressure and cause undue stress on the nervous system. 

“It’s a health hazard to not have a sound-absorbing fence,” Bains said. 

 

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.