September 16, 2014

City Deliberating Over New Noise Violation Policy

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By NOAH RANKIN

Ithaca officials have proposed an amendment to the city’s noise ordinance that intends to categorize permissible noise levels on an objective decibel basis and to give officers increased flexibility when responding to complaints.

Deliberations over the proposed changes — which also include new property definitions, new standards for the Commons and city parks and new regulations for unamplified human voices and motor vehicles — began in February 2013, The Sun previously reported.

According to Alderperson Seph Murtagh M.A. ’04 Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward), the proposed amendment is intended to supplement the current rules, in which people can be penalized for complaints regarding “unreasonable” noise levels.

“The way that our ordinance is currently written, it says that noises are prohibited that are unreasonable at the distance of 25 feet,” Murtagh said. “For most of the cases, that works and gives officers a certain amount of flexibility. We were running into this problem where there’d be ongoing conflicts between commercial establishments like bars and restaurants and residents that live nearby.”

According to Murtagh, the previous ordinance covered approximately 90 percent of cases effectively. The proposed changes would primarily target conflicts that occur around commercial establishments on and near the Commons, and will likely have a lesser effect in places like Collegetown, he said.

“There are always noise complaints in Collegetown. In general, our current noise ordinance is pretty good for resolving those situations,” Murtagh said. “The main driver for a lot of these changes is actually downtown. It’s really been complaints that have come from bars and restaurants more on the edge of residential neighborhoods.”

According to Murtagh, though measuring noise levels is “not an exact science,” the city hired Eric Zwerling, director of the Rutgers Noise Technical Assistance Center, to conduct sound tests around Ithaca. According to previous Sun reports, Zwerling also engaged over 100 community members in a forum over sound policy in October 2013.

“We thought that it would be good to create a more objective standard in the ordinance,” Murtagh said.

Murtagh said two main factors affected the development of the permissible sound levels. Standards found in other municipalities, as well as an “ears-on-the-ground sense of what Ithaca will tolerate.” Zwerling also created the proposed change that includes human voice complaints.

“[Zwerling] came up with that provision specifically to address the problem where people might be walking through, in a residential area, where people might be sleeping, screaming at the top of their lungs,” Murtagh said. “In general, if you’re having a conversation, even a loud conversation, it’s not going to be plainly audible at 100 feet, which is the standard that he came up with.”

The penalties listed in the noise ordinance would not change as a result of the amendment. According to Murtagh, the most important change is the introduction of decibel standards, and they are really intended to give officers a “flexible tool” when dealing with complaints, especially those that result from night-after-night conflicts downtown.

“Essentially what this would do is give the responding officer the option to use a decibel meter if they felt that that piece of equipment would be useful given the situation,” Murtagh said. “The last thing that we want to do with this is mandate that every single noise offense in the City requires a decibel meter.”

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