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Turning Down the Noise

By Mark McGuigan
Staff Writer

July 3 -- If a tree falls in Santa Monica, how much noise does it make, how is the noise quantified and who is to blame?

The Planning Commission last week continued to grapple with this variation of the age-old question, coming no closer to approving the draft Noise Ordinance Proposition that serves as the City’s volume control.

While noise is the soundtrack for urban life, the commission has found that numerically quantifying such sounds as kids screaming, dogs barking and hammers pounding may be almost as difficult as enforcing the more than 600 noise complaints City Hall receives on average every month.

The commission's task Wednesday was especially difficult since a suitable draft of a document City officials agree will affect every resident and business in Santa Monica is slated to go before the City Council on July 22.

“I find it unfortunate that the planning commission is in the loop within four to five weeks of when there is supposedly a final vote on a document like this,” said Commissioner Geraldine Moyle. “I just have to go on record as saying that I find that extremely insulting and very, very noisome.”

“This is one of the most important things we will do,” said Chair Darrell Clarke.

The ordinance has stalled due in large part to the complexity of defining allowable noise levels at different times of the day and in different city zones.

Noise regulations affecting residential areas are often more stringent than those in commercial districts, but when the two areas overlap -- as happens frequently in Santa Monica -- problems arise.

“If a business is established close to a residence, I would think that they would want to be good neighbors and would want to take care that they didn’t bother the neighbors who were 100 feet or less away,” said Dan Stuart.

Speaking on behalf of the Citizens Task Force for Noise Abatement (CTFNA), which opposes key elements of the proposed document, Stuart argued that "the standards of other cities are more conducive to enforcement.”

While the meeting was fraught with "sample noise measurement" charts and numbers indicating Leq (Equivalent noise level), it was a simple tape recording that brought home the difficulties facing the seven-member commission.

The recording, made by resident Jack Behr from his home next to Los Amigos Park, silenced consultants and commissioners alike. “This is what we hear,” Behr said before playing the tape for the commission.

In what can only be described as a noise resembling the din of a thousand children playing in a subway station accompanied by the sound of high-pitched whistles and the occasional loudspeaker announcement, the cacophony reduced the entire assembly to a stupefied silence.

“That is inside my living room,” Behr stated simply, before going on to describe how the park created a background noise level in his home of 60 decibels throughout the day -- about the same as a noisy dishwasher.

If measuring noise is a thankless task, enforcing the proposed ordinance may prove more difficult, making any changes moot, commissioners warned.

“We don’t have the time, the people, the money and effort to enforce these (rules),” conceded Commissioner Jay P. Johnson. “How do we come up with voluntary solutions to these things?”

“None of this is worth anything unless it can be enforced and people know it can be enforced,” said Commissioner Barbara Brown of the stalled proposal, adding that she hoped the discussions were not “all just hot air.”

In debating the ordinance, the political complexity of the issues involved became apparent when the Planning Commission broke with all formal protocol and began addressing members of the public directly.

Commissioner Arlene Hopkins asked resident Anita Holcomb, a founder of the task force, to relate her experience in trying to have the current law on noise pollution enforced.

“It is universally ignored in this city to have a noise complaint,” Holcomb replied. “A lot of us have composed the ‘City Brush-off Handbook’.”

“Chapter 1 is ‘There Is No Problem,’" Holcomb explained. "Chapter 2 is ‘You’re The Problem.’ Chapter 3 is ‘We Have Come Out and Measured and There’s No Measurable Violation.’ Chapter 4 is ‘Why Don’t You Just Move?’ Chapter 5 is ‘Nothing’, chapter 6 is ‘Nothing’; the rest of the chapters are nothing because you don’t get returned phone calls or returned emails.”

City consultants contend that the problem stems from more than lack of enforcement.

“Complaints aren’t being responded to as they’re not going to the right place,” said Vincent Mestre, the City’s consultant on noise pollution. “Communication will solve most of these problems,” he added.

One of the major challenges to enforcing the 11,000 noise-related complaints logged by the City during the past 18-months is that in most cases noise is only a “tangential component,” said Bill Rodrigues, associate planner and one of the architects of the draft proposal.

“It was our hope that this data would show the number of pure noise complaints,” said Rodrigues of the analysis performed on the data. “The information that we got was less useful than we hoped for.”

The real problem with enforcing any noise ordinance is that “noise is very elusive,” according to the Santa Monica Police Department, which handled 10,400 of the 11,000 complaints.

“Elusive noise is that noise typically caused by construction, a passing motorist or a domestic or family disturbance,” said Deputy Chief of Police Phil Sanchez. Chronic noise he added, was easier to deal with as the offending source was more detectable and “chronic offenders” could be prosecuted.

Education is the key to alleviating the problem, Sanhez said. "The educational component is very important in the Noise Ordinance Proposal,” he said, referring to the section of the ordinance dealing with disseminating information to the public.

At the end of the night the frustration seemed palpable, with the number of tired and weary commissioners matching the number of tired and weary residents who remained to hear the conclusion.

Commissioner Clarke requested more information with respect to “real-life recordings” of noise in the city, while Hopkins asked that comments made by the CTFNA regarding the new draft ordinance be taken into consideration when formulating amendments.

The draft noise ordinance is set to return to the Planning Commission again on July 16.
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