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Autopsy of the noise ordinance 

Alex Woodward on the two years of sound and fury that ended with the collapse of a proposed noise ordinance

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April 24 was the day. The tension in the New Orleans City Council chamber grew as the meeting agenda included a long-simmering controversy — a proposed ordinance updating the noise laws on Bourbon Street. Years in the making, the proposed ordinance was the subject of more than two hours of debate, which reached a sort of zero-sum anticlimax: The admittedly unenforceable old law remains unchanged, and there are no firm plans to resume the fight in the near future. A 3-3 vote effectively killed the proposed new ordinance.

  Moments before the meeting adjourned, outgoing District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who led the charge to update the city's noise ordinance, said, "I hope all the stakeholders stay at the table for another two years."

  It was Palmer's last meeting as a member of the council. On May 5, returning council members LaToya Cantrell, James Gray and Stacy Head were sworn in, as were three new members — Jared Brossett, Nadine Ramsey and Jason Williams. For the musicians, businesses, residents and neighborhood groups who worked on the sound issue for more than two years only to see it dissolve, the vote was confusing and disappointing. Carol Allen, president of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA), told the council on April 24, "I'm starting to feel like I have arrows in my back."

The council deadlocked over an amendment to lift the 1950s-era sound curfew, which prohibited street musicians from performing between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. Palmer, City Attorney Sharonda Williams and opponents of the curfew argued it is unconstitutional, because it only targets people playing instruments.

  District E Councilman James Gray said jailing people for performing after curfew "is terrible policy." Council members made a point of saying that if there were three people performing together after curfew — one playing an instrument, another singing and another playing a stereo — only the musician would be breaking the law. Then-council President Jackie Clarkson suggested banning all noise during the curfew, rather than removing it. "Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water," she said. "This is a music preservation ordinance if it's done properly. ... Noise is noise."

  Williams warned the curfew would have a tough time "withstanding legal challenges."

  "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."

  With new blood on the City Council for the next four years, supporters of an updated and enforceable noise ordinance hope for an opportunity to start over.

  Ramsey now holds the entertainment-heavy District C seat formally held by Palmer. That district includes the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. Ramsey is skeptical about the ordinance as written — and like other new faces on the council, she wants to hear more voices in the discussion.

  At-large Councilman Williams, an attorney who has represented brass bands as well as musicians Kermit Ruffins and Glen David Andrews, also wants more discussion, particularly from the music community. Brossett, a former state representative who now holds the council's District D seat, says despite the recent momentum, the ordinance won't be up for discussion just yet, but, "If it does come back, I'll definitely ... sit down with all the stakeholders — both sides — from business to the community and experts."

  "I would've asked for more time," Brossett says. "I don't see where's the rush. It's not the end of the world."

Going back to the drawing board on a sound ordinance will have to take into account the years-long developments and drama not easily forgotten by stakeholders.

  Acoustician David Woolworth was hired by the City Council in 2011 to study the effects of sound on New Orleans' historic structures and to make recommendations for updating the sound ordinance. Meanwhile, throughout the summer of 2012, the Bureau of Revenue began checking delinquent fees and permits at bars and other music venues, including Circle Bar, Siberia and Mimi's in the Marigny, the latter of which was the subject of neighborhood complaints for its dance parties and live music.

  The crackdown inspired the creation of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), a group of musicians, fans, business owners, residents and music professionals. The group held weekly meetings at the now-closed Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy in Treme and eventually drafted a legislative checklist, including tackling the noise ordinance. The group met frequently with Woolworth for progress reports.

  A year later, in August 2013, Woolworth presented his 87-page report to the City Council with four major recommendations: address low-frequency sound; simplify enforcement of violations in the Vieux Carre Entertainment District; make violations civil and not criminal; and focus on enforcement. All sides agreed that enforcement is necessary; as written, the current law provides no viable infrastructure for handling noise complaints. MACCNO also pleaded with the City Council for transparency in drafting legislation.

  But in December, At-large Councilwoman Stacy Head seemed to blindside MACCNO and its supporters with a draft ordinance that ignored Woolworth's recommendations. Head's draft mirrored recommendations from "Seven Essential Items to Make Our Noise Ordinance Work for the City of New Orleans" (also called "Seven Essential Items to Make New Orleans Sound Ordinance Fair and Functional"), a proposal from former VCPORA President Nathan Chapman and several other groups. Among those items: lowering the French Quarter's maximum permissible sound level in residential areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. to 70 decibels (currently capped at 80); and in commercial areas, reducing the level to 75 (from its current 80). On Bourbon Street, the maximum decibel level would be capped at 85 (the current ordinance sets a 10-decibel maximum above the ambient noise level). In a statement, Palmer said her draft was "an attempt to offer a starting point for public consideration and discussion."

  In January, after threats from MACCNO and others to protest the ordinance before a planned City Council committee hearing, Head's proposed ordinance was shelved, and the meeting called off. The protest happened anyway — including an unplanned storming of City Hall, led by trombonist Glen David Andrews and a massive brass band that paraded into the Council Chamber.

  Shortly thereafter, the council ditched efforts to adopt a citywide sound ordinance and focused instead on Bourbon Street, where Woolworth led evening walks measuring sound.

  The already contentious process heated up in following months, as Stuart Smith, an attorney who represents VCPORA, attempted to strong-arm council members to move forward with Head's legislation. In February, The Times-Picayune uncovered emails from Smith to Palmer in which he said he would see she wasn't "electable as dog catcher by the time I am finished with you." Smith also called for the City Council to fire Woolworth, whose contract was renewed by the council earlier this year, for alleged conflicts of interest.

  The ongoing controversy also was a motivating factor in two groups' decision to separate themselves from the state-created French Quarter Management District (FQMD). Both VCPORA and French Quarter Citizens split from the FQMD. But at a March City Council committee meeting, VCPORA's Chapman said he was "optimistic we can work out agreeable compromises" in the next draft.

  On April 24, the council considered the latest draft of a noise ordinance — with the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his administration. The ordinance shifted noise-enforcement responsibility from the New Orleans Police Department to the city's 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 the measurement would last 20 seconds — instead of the 10-minute rule in present law. The ordinance also included an amendment to lift the curfew for street musicians.

  That last point was the final straw, confusing some council members as to what they were actually considering. Most agreed that despite how long it took to get there, the ordinance needed more time. Eric Granderson, the city's director of local governmental affairs, told council it should consider "starting from scratch."

  Attorney Ashlye Keaton, who represents several musicians, and musician Roselyn Lionheart both threatened to sue the city if the curfew isn't lifted. Clarkson said she "proudly stood alone" in her attempt at an amendment to keep the curfew, though she said a vote on the sound ordinance is better suited for the incoming council, which has another four years to tackle the issue.

  Palmer expressed frustration. "This has had a tremendous amount of time and effort," she said. "It deserves a vote."

  With Head absent, the ordinance failed to pass by a 3-3 vote — with Cantrell, Clarkson and Hedge-Morrell voting against it. Cantrell said she hoped that "with a little more tweaking and a little more time, we'll be there," despite no time frame for putting the issue on any future council agendas.

  On May 7, City Attorney Sharonda Williams announced that the city cannot and will not enforce the curfew, though it — along with the nearly 60-year-old, unenforceable noise ordinance — remains on the books.

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