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Neighbors vent over exhaust noise

Gary Arras walks across the deck in his backyard and points toward four dull gray tube-like structures jutting 15 feet into the air atop Southern Oregon University’s science building as they spew exhaust into the atmosphere. He’s shaking his head. He’s not happy, and he’s not alone.

“(Before), you didn’t even know it was there,” Arras said of the previous rooftop structure, which included a penthouse that hid most of the equipment on Science 2, the north half of the 70,000-square foot building. “And now there’s this … thing.”

The lab fume hoods, as they’re known to the builders who installed them, serve a vital purpose, projecting the exhaust high into the air for dilution. But that’s little consolation for Arras and many of his neighbors who live on the hill above and to the west of the building, which is south of Ashland Street and east of Roca Street. There, they say, the noise from the exhaust fans is an unnerving, perpetual background hum, and the smell pungent.

Twenty-six Ashland residents signed a city of Ashland municipal code violation complaint form dated July 20 detailing their beefs with the school’s newest HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system. The equipment was installed as part of a $21 million upgrade to the science building which will be completed this week, according to SOU director of facilities management and planning Drew Gilliland.

Gilliland will be one of several SOU representatives on hand Tuesday night in the Hannon Library, where the school will hold a second informational meeting — the first was held Oct. 15 — to address the neighbors’ concerns. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. in room 352.

Acoustic engineers were dispatched weeks ago to analyze noise levels from various points in nearby neighborhoods, and on Tuesday those who attend will hear SOU’s strategy for dealing with the problem. The acoustic engineers recorded sound levels reaching 55 decibels, Gilliland said. The goal is to get the noise level down 10 decibels in order to meet the city code.

The recommendations are three-fold, Gilliland says. First, the engineers suggest adding acoustic dampening material to the motors on the side of the stacks. Secondly, they say, SOU should increase the size of the stack caps by at least 2 feet. And finally, they say more acoustic deadening material can be added inside the stacks.

“We’re getting pricing and we’re going to do those three things,” Gilliland said.

In addition, the motors on the side of the stack will be lowered from 100 percent power to 50 percent after engineers determined the lower level is adequate to maintain the necessary plume height.

The complaint, which included photographs of both the old roof and new, is signed at the bottom by Jacque Anderson, who’s lived in a house on the 600 block of Elkader Street for 37 years.

“The noise from the new HVAC installation that was running 24/7 comes right through my bedroom window,” Anderson wrote. “The loud electric humming interrupts my sleep and makes me crazy. … I want the quiet back. The school needs to be mindful of its neighbors.”

Arras, who’s lived in a house on the 500 block of Elkader Street, agrees.

“(The sound’s) unbearable. You can’t sleep,” he said. “It just drove us all crazy. I had to close off all these windows and doors with bamboo shades. I bought shades just for that reason. And we had to put sleeping bags under the door to help with the sound so we could sleep — and even then it does something to your REM sleep and you just can’t. We were ready to kill each other.”

According to a “notice of final decision” issued by the city of Ashland on April 4, 2014, and approved by Community Development Director Bill Molnar, the city during the pre-application process advised that a screen is required for rooftop-mounted equipment. Soderstrom Architects, however, noting the lack of screening in the previous design, tree coverage and the steep slope, argued successfully for an exception to that requirement.

“A screen of the size needed would be more of an eyesore than the equipment so it would be counterproductive,” read the request, attached to the decision. “In the case of the fume hood exhausts, the stacks must rise above their (surroundings) or they will not be effective, resulting in fumes possibly drifting into the neighborhood. The trees on campus and in the neighborhood are rather effective at screening the building from the neighborhood because they are 20 to 60 feet tall and located not only at the building but also on the residential lots uphill.”

That idea that the trees screen their new view is a gross overstatement, say the residents, who are also complaining about the smell of the fumes.

Alison Laughlin, who lives on the 700 block of Roca Street, said that at first she thought the new smell in the neighborhood was marijuana, since she first became aware of it soon after marijuana was legalized. But after talking with her neighbors, they concluded that the scent was coming from the stacks. It was so strong in the morning that Laughlin’s neighbor searched his house to make sure nothing was burning and another neighbor suspected skunks.

“So my new concern,” Laughlin said, “is that they’re emitting stuff sort of at my eye level and fumes tend to go up canyons.”

One of the rumors that’s also given Laughlin and her neighbors pause is the possibility that the emissions are the result of cadavers being disposed of. Gilliland squashed that rumor. Though nursing students do work on cadavers in the science building, he said, the bodies are disposed of at another site.

The fumes, he stressed, are not harmful.

—Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Garry Arras holds Ruby Day, 6 months, in his backyard near SOU in Ashland on Thursday. Arras says the new science building on campus has significantly devalued his home. Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch
Neighbors are upset about a new air system at the SOU Science Building. They say it's so loud people can't sleep and one neighbor called the police. Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch