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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Noise Ordinance

One of the most controversial issues of the past two years was the noise ordinance. I fought for a change to our existing ordinance, to establish a reasonable, objective, measurable standard. Before the board made the changes, any noise that "annoys, disturbs..." or affects the peace of persons within the limits of the town was a violation. The ordinance also provided that any violation would be a misdemeanor (criminal violation) with a fine of up to $500 per occurrence. I introduced the amendment finally adopted, which set a measurable standard attempting to balance the interests of residents to enjoy the use of their homes with that of performance venues. It also changed the penalty to a civil fine except in egregious cases of willful violation. I strongly believe that any ordinance should establish a clear, objective standard so that a person or business can know whether it is in violation and take steps to avoid breaking the rule without the heavy hand of the law. I am pleased we were able to do that. Below is a letter I sent to Pamlico News during the controversy.


by David Cox

(Published in Pamlico News, December 31, 2008, p. 4)

The surprising thing about letters printed in Pamlico News concerning Oriental’s noise ordinance, as well as e-mails received at Town Hall from as far away as Raleigh, is that most writers believe we want to abolish outdoor amplified music. That isn’t true.

Many of the letters describe the problem as a private dispute between the Tiki Bar and two local residents. This also isn’t true. More than a dozen residents have complained to either the Chief of Police or to one or more town commissioners that the enjoyment of their homes has been disturbed by loud musical performances at five different venues. Some of the complainants live nearly half a mile from the performance sites. No complaining resident ever requested prohibiting outdoor music. They do want to know why the music has to be so loud, why it has to be so frequent and why it has to last so late. None of the music supporters has provided answers to these questions.

How loud is the music? Last August 2 one of our commissioners measured the dB level on Hodges in front of The Bean, 150 feet from a band at the Tiki Bar. The level was 83 dB. From that, one can calculate the sound level at the bandstand as 120 to 130 dB. That’s between the sound level of a jackhammer and that of a machine gun. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends limiting exposure to noise of 120 dB to nine seconds, and to 130 dB to less than one second. So not only does such a sound level annoy the neighbors, it may be dangerous to the hearing of patrons.

Using a simple physical rule for sound (the inverse square rule), one can calculate that a sound level of 83 dB on Hodges street in front of The Bean would diminish to about 71 – 73 dB at the back deck of South Water Street residences. For comparison, that’s louder than a vacuum cleaner, clacking typewriter or piano playing in your house. But you can’t turn it off. Many people would find that annoying if they are trying to sleep in the next room, read a book, converse with a dinner guest or listen to their own choice of music – in other words, to enjoy the use of their home.

A problem with our current noise ordinance is that we set no measurable, objective standard. It is a violation of our ordinance to make any noise which, “because of its volume level, duration and character annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, health, peace, or safety of reasonable persons of ordinary sensibilities within the limits of the Town.” This makes it hard for business owners, musical performers, nearby residents or the Chief of Police to know when enforcement action is necessary.

Another problem is that the ordinance provides no standards for issuing noise permits. It establishes no limits on times, sound level, number or frequency of events. It provides no criteria for approval or disapproval of a requested permit.

Recognizing our ordinance may require improvement, since January 2008, the Town Board has examined possible options. We have researched and reviewed ordinances in other communities, including Chapel Hill, Carolina Beach, Myrtle Beach, Charlotte, and elsewhere. None of these ordinances is a perfect fit, because none has zoning patterns quite like ours. But they provide a good starting point. A typical standard in other communities is a sound level of 65 dB measured at least 100 feet from the point of origin, and beyond the edge of the emitting property. For a measurement on Hodges Street for a performance at the Tiki Bar, that corresponds to about 105 dB on the bandstand. That is about the same sound level as a low jet flyover or a snowmobile; louder than a helicopter, but not as loud as a chain saw.

A thought for Oriental residents to bear in mind is that our Growth Management Ordinance allows night clubs and bars anywhere in our two mixed use districts. Imagine a Tiki Bar or similar venue at Sea Harbor, both sides of Whittaker Creek, Neuse River Suites, the harbor district, any lot along Broad Street or lower Midyette Street. We make rules not only for what exists at present, but also for what might exist in the future.

A hopeful sign for resolving the issue is that, of twenty-nine letter writers supporting outdoor music, fifteen offered positive, helpful suggestions. Thirteen suggested various time limits and eight suggested regulating the sound level. Both approaches enjoy some support within the Town Board. As we review this controversy, the Town Board welcomes public inputs on issues of sound level, time, number and frequency of performances, exceptions and so forth. We may wish to hold special meetings of the Board to collect information, both verbally and in writing, from everyone having an interest in the outcome.

As often in policy conflicts, this is not a case of good against evil. Bringing tourist dollars to town is good. Enjoying one's home is good. We have a conflict between good things, not between good and evil. Demonizing opponents doesn’t help. We have an excellent Town Board. With helpful, positive input from our citizens, we will be able to resolve these issues to everyone’s benefit.