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Noise ordinance amendments didn’t grease squeaky wheels

By Leslee Kulba –

Asheville City Council approved an amendment to the municipal noise ordinance Tuesday. Former Police Chief Bill Hogan frequently shared that most calls for service were for quality of life issues, like barking dogs or noisy mufflers, and not for violent crimes. In 2011, the Asheville Police Department received 2489 calls to hush neighbors, and this year is tracking just a little higher. Noise is one of those externalities that can’t be kept within property lines. Some like to dish it out to others who can’t take it.

Pat Dockery has been dogging council to restore peace and quiet to her home. Living in West Asheville, her silent nights have been compromised by an increasing number of pubs and bars featuring live music. Dockery had been assured by council her concerns would be fairly considered by a comprehensive review of the ordinance already underway. In the end, Dockery felt the changes would do nothing to improve her situation.

Dockery asked why the police couldn’t use inexpensive, hand-held decibel meters to gauge sound. Municipalities that grapple with sound ordinances typically weigh the arguments for and against quantification with instrumentation and what would annoy a reasonable person. For one thing, meters are not the perfect assessors local governments like to think they are. They power-down, lose calibration, and sometimes measure things besides the target.

Human hearing is not perfect either. Hearing curves indicate different people hear different frequencies with different intensities. White noise from nature is not likely to be as aggravating as a bad song. The problem with “reasonable person” assessments is that the officers charged with issuing citations could have different hearing curves than the complainants. With no rigid standard, regardless of the accuracy of the precision, cops could appear to play favorites; it is not unusual for clubs in close proximity to call lodge complaints to harass the competition. In the end, council adopted the Public Safety Committee’s vetted preference for the “reasonable person” standard.

The city’s noise ordinance now defines noise disturbances to be “any unreasonably loud and raucous sound or noise which (1) endangers or injures the health or safety of humans or animals, (2) endangers or injures personal or real property, or (3) disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivity.” Factors to be considered about the quality of a noise include the time of day; the local zoning; continuity, volume, and intensity; and whether or not amplification devices are used. The last item became an issue after evangelicals employed bullhorns to proselyte at Bele Chere.

Sources of noise added to a list of 16 citable categories are yelling and shouting, parties, and security alarms sounding more than 20 minutes after law enforcement personnel alert the responsible party. For the most part, the noise ordinance will only apply to residential areas.

Tuesday, Larry Holt, representing Downtown Asheville Resident Neighbors, asked if the ordinance shouldn’t be extended into the Central Business District, out of deference to its residents. Cecil Bothwell, who used to live in the heart of downtown, didn’t think so. He said people who live downtown choose to live in a commercial hub. Revelers leaving the bars at 2:00 a.m. were part of the scene, and hearing the dumpsters slamming at 4:00 a.m. provided assurance the trash was being hauled.

Whereas the ordinance defined daylight hours to be between 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m., garbage trucks were encouraged to run between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Again, representing his group, Holt asked that the “wakeup calls” start later. Mayor Terry Bellamy brought the noise enthusiasts around to remembering law and order is multidimensional. It is not unusual for haulers to start working around 4:00 a.m. The ordinance already cut out two hours of unobtrusive work. Making the trucks stop and go in rush hour was only going to create traffic snarls. Bothwell added that the ordinance allows dumpster dumpers to operate before 6:00 a.m. if nobody lodges a complaint.

To file a noise complaint, aggrieved parties need only inform the city manager’s office. Complaints need no longer be notarized. A hearing will be scheduled within fifteen days, and if at least two complainants fail to appear at the hearing, no citations will be issued. Another of Dockery’s criticisms was the amendments did nothing to improve the kangaroo court hearing she described in her experience.

The ordinance was drafted following multimedia education and outreach by city staff. They collected 1045 responses to an online survey in which the most commonly named source of consternation was car mufflers. Receiving only half as many complaints were barking dogs. Both issues were already listed as citable offenses in the original ordinance.

Council approved the ordinance with a commitment to assess its success after one year. The vote was unanimously 6-0. Gordon Smith was at the Isis, surprising his wife Rachael on their tenth anniversary with a renewal of their vows.

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