Senators gave committee approval Friday to a bill reforming the territory’s noise laws to make them easier to enforce and remove many broad exemptions enacted in 2012.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Novelle Francis, includes engine noise from motorcycles and cars for the first time and sets specific decibel levels at specific distances by which to measure whether a business, gathering or vehicle is in violation. It also removes some weekend and holiday exemptions. [Bill 31-0381]
An array of organizations, including the Frederiksted Economic Development Association, the Christiansted Community Alliance and the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce testified about the economic and quality of life costs of rampant, extreme noise pollution late at night.
Melody Rames of FEDA recounted the stories of several small inns and bed and breakfast facilities in the Frederiksted area that have had guests leave early and have lost new guests because of bad online reviews citing deafening noise from parties.
Owners of a Prince Street facility with short and long-term rentals had problems with "noise level emanating from the American Legion Hall, where functions that are held there are apparently allowed to blast music at high volumes until the early hours of the morning," Rames said.
"Most recently a couple from Denmark cancelled a $2,000 week stay at their establishment because of negative comments on the internet regarding the noise levels on such sites as TripAdvisor and Yelp."
The owners would "like the senators to know that there is definitely a multiplier effect when trips are cancelled or visitors to the island say they are leaving in the middle of their vacation because of noise pollution. This multiplier effect can lead to loss of revenue for several other businesses on St. Croix such as the restaurants, the dive shops, the taxis, the grocery stores, the food suppliers, beverage suppliers, our growing wedding industry, it even affects engagements for bands and entertainers," she said.
Along with similar complaints from other businesses about extremely loud beach parties and loud motorcycles, Rames recounted concerns from town residents, who moved into townhouses on Queen Street nine years ago.
"Eight individuals partnered with the government and invested a large amount of money to become proud homeowners. Little did they know that this would be the beginning of a long and arduous fight with the level of noise and violence on Queen Street. According to the homeowners, ‘We have seen everything.’ The homeowners report there a 10 to 12 bars on that street, the music is there every day and louder on the weekends, there’s a fear for the safety of the children, there are drive-bys, homicides, prostitution and these businesses seem to be able to find loopholes in the law that allowed them to continue to operate to the detriment of the residents," she said.
Former Sen. Douglas Canton of the Christiansted Community Alliance reported on similar concerns and showed a video of two St. Croix women attempting to give a public talk during Emancipation celebrations, only to be repeatedly interrupted by extremely loud motorcycle engine revving and loud car stereos.
St. Croix Chamber of Commerce President Kimberly McCollum also spoke about the economic impact of extreme noise late at night.
While no one spoke against the bill or against the principle of strengthening noise regulations, several testifiers raised issues with the details of the bill. Canton, McCollum and Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Devin Carrington all questioned a provision that appeared to loosen noise regulations by reducing the distance loud clubs must be from schools, churches and residences from 500 feet down to 100 feet.
Carrington also recommended adding more, specific decibel-based noise limits, for more types of noise sources. And, citing federal law, he recommended giving enforcement responsibility to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Senators on the committee spoke about their own experiences with extremely loud late-night parties and agreed in principle with both the reforms and the need to amend the bill.
"Truly, I believe that noise has been a vexing issue," Francis said.
The Committee on Homeland Security, Public Safety and Justice voted without objection to send the measure on to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for amendment.
Voting to send the bill on were: Francis, Sen. Jean Forde, Justin Harrigan, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Sammuel Sanes. Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who attended the hearing, was absent at the time of the vote.
The Legislature has been wrestling back and forth with noise control since at least 2010, when it passed a law about loud music in bars. At the time, the V.I. Police Department purchased 50 new noise meters but the VIPD and DLCA determined it cannot use them until the law is clarified. Francis’ bill tries to address this concern.
Then, in 2012, the Legislature overrode Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s veto to gut the noise control act with a long list of broad exemptions. Then-Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen presented the broad exemptions as a defense of culture. Hansen’s law says the territory’s noise pollution law "does not apply to sounds emanating on the weekend," until 3 a.m. Fridays or Saturdays and midnight Sundays, among its many, broad exemptions to the noise pollution law.
That law exempts any activity by the American Legion or "the military."
Also exempted were any activities on St. Patrick’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Emancipation Day, Independence Day, D. Hamilton Jackson Day, and any V.I. Puerto-Rico Friendship activity, without regard to who does the activity or where or when these activities occur.
The law also specifies that exemptions are not limited to these events, and other, unnamed events could also be automatically exempted. DeJongh wrote at the time that he vetoed the bill because it was so overbroad as to amount to “a complete gutting of the noise pollution control effort in the territory."
The bill approved in committee Friday would reverse most of those exemptions.
The committee also heard testimony on a bill, from Sen. Neville James, to give most employees of the V.I. Fire Service a 15 percent across the board pay increase under the rubric of "hazardous duty." Senators broadly agreed firefighters deserved more pay and that the work was hazardous. But the fact that there was no source of funding and the fact that many government agencies, including the territory’s hospitals, are in dire need of more funds than are available, raised concerns.
"There is no disagreement over whether or not firefighters deserve differential pay," Sen. Jean Forde said. "But if we pass this and we can’t fund it, then what are we doing? … Otherwise we will be nothing else than politicians like we have all criticized in the past, making promises."
The committee voted 7-0 to hold the bill pending amendment and a post-audit analysis of its impact on the overall budget.