Despite ongoing revisions and years of studying the impact of sound on New Orleans, an ordinance to curb noise on Bourbon Street died in the New Orleans City Council chambers April 24. The ordinance — which had the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration — aimed to cut down noise, particularly heavy bass sounds, coming from bars and businesses on the street. It also would lift the curfew placed on street musicians from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., a law that has been on the books for nearly six decades. District C councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said the curfew is unconstitutional, as it is not equally applied to all people making noise after a certain time. With today's vote, what remains is present law, which opponents have called unenforceable and uneven.
The recent battle over a noise ordinance took shape in January when the City Council withdrew a citywide ordinance that used language identical to a document from the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) and ignored recommendations from a massive, City Council-commissioned report from acoustician David Woolworth. Palmer and the Landrieu administration led revisions to a Bourbon Street-focused ordinance using recommendations from Woolworth and input from musicians and business owners.
The resulting ordinance shifted noise responsibility from the New Orleans Police Department to the Health Department and made violations civil rather than criminal offenses. It also included instructions for sound measurements, which would be taken five feet from a building when its doors and windows are closed, and would last 20 seconds — instead of the 10-minute rule in present law. The ordinance also aimed to lift the curfew for street musicians.
The debate in City Council chambers April 24 took place over more than two hours with attempts at adding several amendments. “We’ve been amending and amending, and we’re going to find out some of the things we’re amending are not legal,” said District D councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. “What is the rush? Get it right.”
Several public speakers — including WWOZ-FM general manager David Freedman — noted that the City Council was voting on a music issue as thousands of people visit New Orleans for Jazz Fest.
Clarkson said she “proudly [stood] alone” in her amendment to keep the curfew. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the baby water,” she said. “I’ve been the biggest music promoter in the city. … This is a music preservation ordinance if it’s done properly. … Noise is noise.”
With councilwoman Stacy Head absent, the ordinance failed to pass the ordinance by a 3-3 vote, with Clarkson, Hedge-Morrell and District B councilwoman LaToya Cantrell voting against it. The April 24 meeting also was the last for Clarkson, Hedge-Morrell and Palmer before they leave office in May.
“I hope all the stakeholders stay at the table for another two years,” Palmer said.