May 4, 2010

Noise and Its Discontents

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In a thinly-veiled attempt to restrict Collegetown partying, Ithaca’s Common Council approved a number of amendments in 2004 that heavily strengthened the law officially known as the “City of Ithaca Noise Ordinance.” The first and most-discussed of these amendments expanded the definition of a noise violation to include sounds that can be heard “25 feet or more from the source” — a staggeringly minute distance that, according to one lawsuit which successfully challenged the ordinance, would outlaw the “clicking of boots, small children playing, a ringing cell phone, and typical conversations.” Other changes included sharply increased fines for offenses (plus possible jail time or hundreds of hours of community service), and granting the police department authority to issue tickets to every resident of offending premises, regardless of whether or not they were involved, or even present, at the time of the violation.

Ithaca’s 2004 Common Council intended to deter students from throwing parties by creating an atmosphere in which punishments would be swift, certain and absurdly severe. Now, nearly six years after their changes were implemented, the most important question still remains unanswered: Has Ithaca’s new-look noise ordinance reduced noise?

According to Assistant City Attorney Robert Sarachan (an individual who is paid about $36,000 a year by the City of Ithaca to prosecute Cornell students part-time, but has ironically remained employed as an adjunct professor at Cornell), early anecdotal evidence suggested that the new ordinance had indeed mitigated noisy Collegetown partying. Additionally, many residents reported that they believed that noise levels decreased after the changes went into effect. If one were to take these accounts at face value, it would seem as though noise ordinance 2.0 was a success.

Despite these encouraging self-reports, however, I believe it’s clear that the new ordinance failed to accomplish its goals. Not only is anecdotal evidence questionable at best, but there are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of these accounts in particular. Even when people don’t intend to bias their reports (debatable in this case), most of us are guilty of treating outcomes very differently depending on whether or not a particular result stands out in our minds. Indeed, it’s likely that the very same reports mentioned above would have surfaced even if the ordinance had no effect whatsoever.

The reason for this is really quite simple: assuming that at least a few noise-creating culprits change residences from time to time (as is the case in Collegetown, since seniors graduate and new residents move in), many households will experience a significant decrease in noise every single year, ordinance or otherwise. Those who noticed an improvement would undoubtedly have remembered the “effect” that the ordinance had on their increased well-being, and would have been much more likely to report it. On the other hand, people who experienced no change at all almost certainly said nothing, and nobody would have published a story about someone’s unchanged circumstances anyway. Even for the unfortunate few who actually gained noisy neighbors, it seems highly unlikely that they’d have spoken up either, given how absurd it would be to report that a highly restrictive ordinance created more noise.

In light of these concerns, one must seek out substantially better information in order to make a reasoned judgment about the ordinance’s effectiveness. To the best of my knowledge, however, the City of Ithaca has never made any attempt at all to evaluate the effects of its updated ordinance. In fact, the city doesn’t even keep records of the noise tickets issued or noise complaints filed each year. The task of legitimate evaluation thus falls to me.

Since enforcement policies change regularly, the number of noise complaints called in each year would seem to provide the best possible indication of the ordinance’s success. Fortunately, the Ithaca Police Department has offered the following count: in 2004, during the height of the Common Council’s campaign to gag the Collegetown community, 1199 noise complaints were filed. After the passage of the new-look ordinance, the number of complaints plunged all the way down to 1180 in 2005. By 2006, noise complaints had hit a three-year low of 1051. Unfortunately for advocates of the ordinance, however, the most recent data indicates that 1242 complaints were filed in 2008, and last year complaints reached an all-time high of 1375.

Could it be the case that disruptive noise has gone down, yet due to the new 25-feet rule, there were simply a higher number of complaint-worthy incidents? Perhaps, although it’s extremely unlikely. Angry neighbors call in noise complaints when they’ve been bothered — and one’s threshold for becoming irritated isn’t likely to change just because the Common Council passed a few deplorable amendments.

It seems obvious that Ithaca’s updated noise ordinance has been an abject failure, the estimated $300,000 that the city has accrued from ticketing Cornell students notwithstanding. Given its clear ineffectiveness, and since one court has actually declared that this ordinance “cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny,” it’s high time to repeal it.

Daniel Horwitz is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at dah74@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Daniel Horwitz