February 12, 2013

Ithaca Mulls Reform of Noise Ordinance

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At a meeting of the Collegetown Neighborhood Council Tuesday, Ithaca residents debated a potential change to the City of Ithaca’s noise ordinance that would establish a maximum decibel level for complaints.

At the meeting, Ithaca Alderperson Seph Murtagh M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward) said the proposed decibel standard for noise complaints would make the complaints more objective.

The current noise ordinance “defines unreasonable noise as continuous, impulsive, but it’s ultimately a subjective opinion, based on the police officer’s judgment,” Murtagh said. “What we are proposing are not laws for mandatory decibel readings, but a tool officers could use to make decisions regarding noise complaints.”

The noise ordinance proposal was spurred by repeated noise reports from residents near Da Westy, a bar on the Commons. Murtagh said the ambiguity of the current noise ordinance presents problems in commercial zones such as the Commons.

“[Da Westy features] loud music, a beer garden and loud games. And even after the owners moved the games and lowered the amplified music, they still get complaints,” Murtagh said. “The bars have a right to have noise in their zone.”

According to Murtagh, the proposed changes would exist alongside the city’s current noise ordinance.

“The current noise ordinance is good for college parties, since you want that flexibility police officers have during complaints,” he said.

But some attendees disagreed.

“I’m someone who lives where the parties take place, and I think the problem here is the parties,” said Tom Hanna ’64, a former member of the Common Council and chair of East Hill Civic Association. “It is also the rush events and people running by. We have a lot of transient phenomena, and I want to see what we are doing to change the culture.”

Still, Cornell University Police Department Sgt. Anthony Bellamy said law enforcement officials have been communicating with students about the issue.

“The police meets with fraternities and sororities to discuss these matters and their responsibilities and dialogue has been well-received,” Bellamy said.

Tessa Rudan ’89, a member of the Planning and Development Board, proposed that community members take a reactionary role in response to noise complaints.

“I would like a bystander intervention element, for not just the noise, but other conduct that goes along with it, like drinking, overcrowding and public urination,” she said.

Students said there should be a distinction in the ordinance with respect to the location of the violation.

“I think the discussion surrounding the ordinance needs to be looked [at] from two different perspectives,” said Eric Silverberg ’14, chair of the Cornell Collegetown Student Council. “The intent, being born in the business district, cannot be applied to what goes on in Collegetown.”

Jacob Newman ’15 said he supports the addition of a specific decibel limit to the noise ordinance, provided it is only applied to commercial zones.

“I think adding the decibel [standard] is a nice objective way to measure situations. I’m not sure how it will work with college parties, but it’s a nice way to monitor the commercial zones and make sure they don’t get too loud,” Newman said.

Murtagh said there is a need to update the noise ordinance to fit the demands of a modern city.

“There would be different standards for zones, but the noise ordinance has to be unique to the Ithaca community,” Murtagh said. “As the city becomes more dense, there’s going to be more complications with noise, and the current ordinance is just too archaic for our situations.”

To assist with his proposal, Murtagh consulted Eric Zwerling, director of the Noise Technical Assistant Center at Rutgers University and a specialist in noise ordinances.

The proposal will be reviewed by the Collegetown Neighborhood Council, the Ithaca Police Department and the Ithaca Common Council for approval.

“[The noise ordinance] has to have the support of the staff who are going to enforce it, mainly the building and police department,” Murtagh said.

Original Author: Kevin Milian