Local governments set noise level limits
When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided in June to muffle the jingle from the Mister Softee ice cream trucks as part of an effort to curb noise in the Big Apple, he came under fire from the New York Post who dubbed him “Mister Meanie.” It was a very public chastising of Bloomberg by the tabloid, only to be offset by an editorial in The New York Times the next day, applauding the mayor for his efforts to clamp down on offending noises. While Bloomberg’s endeavor made national headlines, he is not alone in the battle over noise as local officials from across the country struggle to find the appropriate volume for their communities.
Across the nation, mayors and county commissioners are under public pressure to review or implement laws to restrict noise levels. Each community has its own noise problems, with the most common offenders being the riveting of construction jackhammers, blaring music from local bars, the whirling sound of leaf blowers, the pulsating beat of car stereos and the humming of air conditioning units or any combination of the aforementioned.
“There are as many reasons to adopt ordinances as there are separate individual jurisdictions,” says Eric Zwerling, director of Rutgers University Noise Technical Assistance Center. Zwerling travels the country helping local officials draft noise ordinances and teaches code enforcement officials and police officers how to register accurate decibel readings that will be admissible in court. He estimates that he has written 30 to 50 noise ordinances for local governments.
It is not clear how many local governments have noise ordinances in place, because there is no national clearinghouse for the information since the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was closed in the early 1980s. But a broad review of local governments’ legislative actions over the past seven months as well as information circulated by anti-noise groups shows that turning down the volume is a main topic of discussion at many city council and county commission meetings.
Alameda County, Calif., is one of the many jurisdictions considering toughening its noise ordinance, which has been in place for more than 20 years. Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker says a growing number of constituents are complaining about loud music from cars and noise from other sources. While Lai-Bitker says that tightening her county’s current noise standards might anger some of her constituents, she predicts it will be approved this year. “There are more people who are concerned about quality of life in regards to the noise,” she says.
In Sarasota, Fla., the problem centers on noise generated by bars, and it highlights the intergenerational struggle between retirees and the area’s growing population of young professionals. Five months ago, the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners approved tougher noise restrictions much to the chagrin of bar owners. The new rule prohibits indoor entertainment after 10 p.m. but can be waived if a business owner petitions for a “special exception.” “It allows neighborhoods to weigh in [on the proposal] at a public meeting,” says Sarasota Commissioner Shannon Staub.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation to reopen ONAC and fund a $20 million effort to combat noise, which studies suggest can affect a person’s medical health and mental state. But it is unlikely her bill will be approved in the closing months of the 108th Congress, which is dominated by election-year politics. Until Congress and the White House act, local officials will have to proceed without federal support. But, as Zwerling notes, noise is a widespread problem, and “it is important that local officials know they are not alone.”