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The noise ordinance: one year later 

Alex Woodward finds out where City Hall, neighborhood groups, musicians and club owners stand on the proposed noise ordinance

click to enlarge Musician Kermit Ruffins addresses a meeting of musicians, club owners and others concerned about city restrictions covering music and proposed noise ordinances.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Musician Kermit Ruffins addresses a meeting of musicians, club owners and others concerned about city restrictions covering music and proposed noise ordinances.

On June 17, word spread that more than a dozen neighborhood groups planned to take the steps at New Orleans City Hall the next morning to present their outline of "seven essential items to make a noise ordinance work for New Orleans." But it never happened.

  The coalition of groups, chaired by former Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA) President Nathan Chapman, knew it would be walking into a protest, Chapman said.

  "Our plan was to get it out there, get out our own story," Chapman said. "There's no point in having a circus."

  The New Orleans City Council is reviewing recommendations to update the city's noise ordinance, first drafted in 1956 and infrequently updated until the mid-1990s (the last revision was in 1998). In December 2011, the city hired acoustician and sound expert David Woolworth to study noise levels and their impact, make recommendations in a report and submit it to District C New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer (who represents the entertainment-heavy French Quarter and Marigny). Palmer and her staff are now reviewing the lengthy report — nearly 100 pages, with a 189-page appendix.

  But that's not the only report or recommendation. The neighborhood coalition released its own recommendations June 18, and the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO) — which represents music venue owners and performers citywide — made theirs.

  The three sets of recommendations — the city's is pending — are not necessarily in response to one another, nor do they challenge each other's points. But MACCNO and the neighborhood groups want a conversation with the City Council before a new noise ordinance comes to the table.

"Noise control" falls under the city's department of health and the New Orleans Police Department. Under the ordinance, both departments "have the power" to perform noise monitoring and inspections and prosecute violators. Exempt from "noise control" are streetcars, jazz funerals, parades, construction, church bells and other ordinary city sounds.

  Recommendations for a new noise ordinance address the question of "control": How much does the neighborhood or enforcement have over the noise coming from a venue? Also, is "enforcement" for a crime or a complaint? A frequently used word is "reasonable" — from how sound levels should be measured (from a nearby house or from a venue? Is the window open? Is the house even up to code so sound should not leak into it?) to what one should expect in New Orleans and its neighborhoods (e.g., "Why do you live next door to a music venue?").

  Nicole Webre, Palmer's legislative director, said Palmer has made redrafting the noise ordinance a priority since she took office in 2010 — also the year NOPD officers forced the To Be Continued Brass Band from its spot at the intersection of Canal and Bourbon streets, where it had performed on a near-nightly basis from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. NOPD quality-of-life officers enforced the street performance curfew, which ends live music on public byways at 8 p.m.

  "Everybody was in an uproar over the musicians' curfew," Webre said. That became the jumping-off point for Palmer's office to consider a new noise ordinance — which grew to "60-something pages," Webre said.

  "We pulled back and thought maybe we need to do this piecemeal," she said. "(The current ordinance) is not that it's bad. It's not. There are parts that could be changed. But the most important is enforcement."

  In April 2012, the City Council passed an ordinance primarily targeting Bourbon Street bars blasting recorded music from speakers — which now must be set back at least 10 feet from doors and windows. It was Palmer's first step towards new "noise" legislation. "We thought this was an easy way," Webre said. "It doesn't require police to carry sophisticated equipment, just a tape measure."

  But NOPD has no dedicated noise-control personnel. Its quality-of-life officers respond to noise complaints, which come from 911 calls. Webre said that's another issue with enforcement: finding better ways to address complaints, particularly as "clubs are expanding" and "tourists and people from other communities are seeing more music, and music where there wasn't before."

  In April, the bar Mimi's in the Marigny suspended its music programming after Marigny residents filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. The suit said the bar hosts music "illegally" and noise is "plainly audible" in neighborhood homes and businesses, causing "physical discomfort and annoyance."

  On his website, attorney Stuart H. Smith wrote that the city "is not being fully responsive to either its citizens or to the laws that protect them. This is not just an assault upon the ears, but against a civil society. If you care about protecting neighborhoods demand that quality of life laws be enforced by your elected officials."

  Smith works with "Hear the Music, Stop the Noise," representing the coalition of neighborhood groups that presented seven recommendations for a new citywide noise ordinance.

  Palmer has not made any decisions yet about what a noise ordinance should look like, according to Webre. "What she does recognize is we need more public education and enforcement," Webre said. "Not necessarily citing people, but having conversations with businesses and neighbors about noise."

MACCNO represents "a community group composed of musicians, cultural workers and bearers, residents and business owners," it says on its website. At a July 17 meeting at Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy on Basin Street, the noise ordinance was at the top of the agenda.

  The bar, has hosted regular meetings for the group every other week since last September. Ruffins had called for a community meeting in response to the suspension of live music at Mimi's in the Marigny, Siberia and Circle Bar, among others, following city permit checks. Attendees at that meeting assembled an ad hoc "committee" to address concerns from venue owners, musicians, second-line paraders and the larger music and cultural community. This month, MACCNO launched a petition (which gathered more than 200 signatures as of press time) to support its own noise ordinance proposal. The petition includes the following:

  "We believe that the culture and music of New Orleans form the backbone of our city. It enhances the quality of life, creates income and opportunity for thousands of residents, and has created one of the most distinctive and famous destinations in the world. A noise ordinance that threatens the culture of New Orleans not only damages the ability of thousands of people to make a living, lowers property values and endangers quality of life, but it puts the very identity and uniqueness of the City in danger."

  The proposal — "A Noise Ordinance for All New Orleanians" — includes five broad recommendations. It argues against the need for a "blanket" citywide ordinance and instead favors regulations "appropriate to the individual character and soundscapes of the city's diverse neighborhoods"; it also argues against criminalization of noise complaints and calls for "a formalized mediation process." ("Criminalizing live music is neither a good neighbor policy nor a good economic policy in a city that thrives on the availability, diversity, and innovation of performance," it reads.) MACCNO also calls for a dedicated city office to handle noise complaints, as well as more clarity in the laws for street performers, including publicly posted hours and noise level parameters, and workshops and training on any new regulations.

  Its final recommendation aims to protect cultural traditions, including jazz funerals, second lines, parades and street performances. MACCNO asks that the city host public hearings and reach out to the cultural community for input before its noise ordinance goes to a vote.

  MACCNO moderator Hannah Kreiger-Benson told Gambit that its recommendations were not in response to the neighborhood coalition — updating the noise ordinance has been a MACCNO priority since its meetings last year. Releasing the recommendations now, however, wasn't a coincidence.

  "We wanted to publicly state things that are important as public discussion goes forward," she said. "These are the things that need to guide discussion and are non-negotiable to ensure the noise ordinance ... recognizes the cultural community."

  Melissa Weber, aka DJ Soul Sister, whose Saturday night Hustle! event at Mimi's moved to Hi-Ho Lounge following the litigation, told Gambit that a noise ordinance must be, in part, "written by people who understand that musical culture in New Orleans comes from the bottom up." She said enforcing "noise" without considering the musicians who develop from small, neighborhood clubs will kill "that impromptu energy" people expect from New Orleans.

  "I don't want to see it not allowed for small businesses to have music," she said. "That's not good for the neighborhood. We're losing that. ... The culture has to start from the neighborhoods."

In its recommendations, the neighborhood coalition (under "Hear the Music, Stop the Noise") calls for music venues to regularly document its noise measurements; the appointment of full-time noise control personnel; and for all sound measurements to be taken from the property line of the sound source. It also recommends state legislators pass legislation to "impose penalties that will deter repeat offenses for abuse of sound ordinance standards. In the absence of this legislation, consider other deterrents such as limited operating hours or complete shut down of the offending establishment."

  Another recommendation calls for a public role in the mayoralty permitting process — which grants venues operating permits for live entertainment — "to ensure advance public notification and opportunities for public comment."

  The coalition also recommends that the decibel levels specifically in the French Quarter's Vieux Carre Commercial (VCC) and Vieux Carre Residential (VCR) districts return to the levels that existed in 1989.

  Decibel level and the science of sound are the linchpins in the noise ordinance conversation. The neighborhood coalition wants to set a 60-decibel limit in the VCR from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., a 65-decibel limit in the VCC, and a maximum limit of 85 decibels in residential areas of the French Quarter. (For reference, the American Tinnitus Association says 60 decibels is about the volume of a sewing machine; 85 is the sound of traffic from inside a car.)

  "We want to make sure the excesses are turned down a little bit," Chapman said. "It's not like people are going to stay in their hotel rooms."

  After it released its recommendations, the neighborhood coalition met some pushback from several local publications for its reach and clunky language — particularly a quote from Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council President Val Exnicios, who said, "Serious musicians, event organizers and club owners work hard to reward us with wonderful melodies at sensible times with proper volumes."

  

MACCNO and the neighborhood coalition find common ground on at least two things: enforcement and regulation.

  MACCNO calls for "professional enforcement and education" handled by a "dedicated office directed with handling noise complaints that is both accessible and accountable. It is integral that this office be tasked with providing outreach to residents, businesses, performers, cultural workers, and other members of the cultural community about rules and regulations. This office must also take the lead in starting and fostering any mediation necessary to bring all involved parties to a mutually satisfying resolution of issues."

  The neighborhood coalition wants the city to "appoint a full-time person who will have the authority and affirmative duty to administer and enforce the ordinances, and who shall have the full backing of NOPD and Health Department, and who shall establish and maintain a publicly accessible (via interactive website) centralized recordkeeping system to track complaints, enforcement and compliance efforts."

  MACCNO sees "mediation" and community input as a means of "noise" control; the neighborhood coalition's blanket description of "noise" amounts to what is or isn't above a certain decibel level.

  Both groups have sent copies of their recommendations to the City Council, which is still reviewing Woolworth's report. Webre said council staff has met with him regularly. So has MACCNO; Woolworth held a MACCNO teach-in last year.

  "His report is his report," Webre said. "Whether he decided to include (recommendations) is up to him. They're welcome to come to the table and discuss his recommendations."

  As an election year approaches after more than a year of writing, researching and reviewing the ordinance, Palmer and her staff are now planning how to release the information.

  "Coming up on the timeline, is this going to go before a committee? Are we going to put it on the city's website ahead of time to come up with questions and comments?" Webre said. "That's what we're doing now: finding a timeline."

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