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Council Adopts Resident-friendly Noise Ordinance

By Blair Clarkson
Staff Writer

Feb. 12 -- In a dramatic turnaround likely to be cheered by residents fed up with late-night noise from businesses, the City Council voted Tuesday night to accept the provisions of a noise ordinance it had turned down in November.

Arguing that it provided more balance between residents and businesses, the council reverted to an ordinance that requires noise measurements to be based on residential standards and taken at the point of reception, rather than the source.

The ordinance -- which has been four years in the making -- also sets up a transitional zone between commercial and residential properties.

"Our motivation as a council elected by residents should be to represent the residents," said Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, maintaining that the councilís initial goal was to protect people living near commercial areas. "Noise pollution erodes the quality of life."

In November the council shelved a similar ordinance when Michael Feinstein, Bob Holbrook, Herb Katz and Pam O'Connor opposed the main provision because there wasnít enough statistical data and the impact on businesses had not been adequately studied.

City staff was instructed to return on Tuesday with a new ordinance that removed the transition zone and proposed measuring residential noise levels based on standards at the source, which are generally in louder commercial areas.

Many residents, who felt the council had sold out to business interests, expressed outrage over the new proposal and neighborhood activists threatened to campaign against Katz and Feinstein, who are both up for reelection in November. (see related story)

Whether or not that had any effect on Tuesday nightís vote, the November proposal passed 4 to 3 after Katz joined Mayor Richard Bloom, Ken Genser, and McKeown in support of the original ordinance.

After the motion passed, Feinstein, who continued to express "deep misgivings" about a lack of data supporting the ordinance, also switched his position and joined the majority.

"I'm going to change my vote, not because I think it's good policy, but because a lot of people are invested in it and I want to give it a chance," Feinstein said. By supporting it now, "I preserve my ability to critique it should it not prove to work and be as faulty as I believe it will turn out to be."

Much of the council's debate centered on the issue of a transitional zone -- a proposed 100-foot buffer between residential and commercial lots in which the allowable noise level would be the average for the adjoining lots.

For example, if a commercial area with an evening decibel level of 60 dBA abutted a residential area with an evening level of 50 dBA, the noise level 100 feet into the residential area could not exceed 55 dBA.

Council member Holbrook argued that measuring a transitional level of noise would be a "fundamental unfairness" to businesses that are separated from residents by only a property line.

"Someone could stand close to the (commercial) property line and measure from there," he said. "Being able to take a measurement an inch or two away from a commercial zone is ridiculous. I don't think that's fair at all."

Proponents of the provision countered that transitional zones in fact help businesses by allowing them to create noise levels in certain residential zones higher than normally permitted.

"I think it's very fair to expect businesses to meet residents half way," said Councilman Genser.

The November ordinance "didn't simply say that businesses had to conform with residential standards," he continued, "it said we're going to average the two. That's a fair balance between resident and business rights."

After further debate and input from City staff, the council concluded that noise measurements in transitional zones should be taken on the receptor's property at least 25 feet away from the property line of the source.

The council's vote to return to the November proposal capped a series of heated exchanges between council members and charged public testimony over an issue that has polarized businesses and residents.

"A noise complaint is a request to the City for help," said resident Ellen Brennan, citing the 11,000 noise complaints received by the City over an 18-month period. "You were voted into office by residents who expect a government that promotes a harmonious environment."

"We need accountability now," implored Danielle Guillou, another frustrated resident pleading for the ordinance. "We want something on the books with meat on it."

"People want to be able to sleep," added Dan Evans.

Others questioned whether the problem could truly be attributed to businesses and not to car radios and sidewalk drunks.

"Based on assumptions and a lack of data you want to pass a noise ordinance
that will severely restrict the way businesses operate," said Kathy Dodson, who heads the Chamber of Commerce. "There's no way to determine which complaints are business related. I don't think we have the data."

"The numbers are irrelevant," responded Councilman McKeown, dismissing similar calls for more study and data collection. "The message from the citizens is that the City is too loud."

While the battle raged between resident and business advocates, several Council members addressed the deep rift being created in the community by the ongoing debate.

"It's not a war between business owners and residents," said O'Connor. "We have to make this community work together. The goal is not to demonize any one segment of the community."

"We live in a complex city," added Katz, "and we represent the entire City as a whole. This council is dividing it."

After four hours of testimony and deliberations, the Council surprised the few remaining members of the public seated in the chamber by scrapping the new proposal they had requested in November and passing the original noise ordinance requiring transitional zones and residential-based measurements.

As part of the approved noise ordinance, the council amended the proposal to allow public utilities to start work at 7 a.m., restricted certain commercial activities (including trash disposal and deliveries) after 11 p.m. and adopted fines for noise violations and user fees for after-hour construction permits.

In response to prior concerns that the City lacked the necessary personnel to supervise any noise regulations, the council also authorized the addition of one code compliance officer for noise-related enforcement.

The council instructed staff to review the adopted ordinance and return with an analysis in six to eight months.

"What we ended up with is better than what we had," Genser concluded.

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