How loud is too loud? That was the question Thursday morning when the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice heard arguments on a bill that would amend existing noise pollution laws by providing clear definitions on what constitutes noise pollution and how to determine if that standard is being violated.
The bill, proposed by Sen. Sammuel Sanes, substitutes the term “noise-sensitive area” for “quiet zones” in the existing law. Noise-sensitive areas include schools, churches, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes.
The bill relies on a technical definition for determining what constitutes noise pollution, a noise that “exceeds a sound level reading of 0.79 weighted average decibels for the daily period of operation at or across a real property boundary. Such levels shall be measured with a sound level meter manufactured according to standards prescribed by the American National Standards Institute.” It also specifies how and where such readings should be taken.
That requirement prompted most of Thursday’s discussion, with several senators asking exactly how loud 79 decibels is. At one point Sanes, who is chair of the committee, had the legislatures media person play a tone up to the level of 79 decibels. It was certainly an annoying sound, all agreed.
However, as Sanes pointed out, the bill does not outlaw a sound of 79 decibels or prohibit them louder than that. Instead it provides a technical standard.
Testifying in favor of the measure were Police Commissioner Novelle Francis and Wayne Biggs, commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs. Both talked about the need to have an objective standard so that enforcement officers did not have to rely on their own or another individual’s sense of whether a particular sound was too loud.
“They will undoubtedly give the statute more ‘teeth’ and make violation … clearer and more readily enforceable,” Biggs said.
Sen. Louis Patrick Hill said it was unfortunate that it was necessary to legislate what should be a simple matter of good manners or common courtesy. At the same time, he acknowledged that long-established businesses—particularly restaurants, taverns or night clubs that have been operating for years—might be faced with increased costs to control noise or face going out of business.
“We have to create some flexibility for people and institutions that have been here for years, done things, practiced their business a certain way,” he said. “If there’s been businesses that have operated in those areas for years … it would be draconian that we would say shut your business down.”
Biggs said the proposal would not force businesses to close, and added that there is already a law on the books that prohibits excessive noise in certain times and places. This bill just amends that by specifying how to measure the noise.
Sanes said the discussion had given him food for thought, and he will offer several amendments, or technical “tweaks,” before passage.
The panel unanimously approved sending the bill on to the Rules Committee. Voting “yes” were Sens. Sanes, Celestino White Sr., Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Patrick Sprauve and Alvin Williams. Sen. Wayne James was absent.