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Council Gets Earful on Noise

By Mark McGuigan
Staff Writer

July 22 -- Whispering cheerleaders and sleep-deprived children, silent choirs and scream-filled parks, these were just some of the concerns jostling for the attention of the City Council Tuesday evening at a meeting to discuss the proposed draft Noise Ordinance.

For over two hours, council members sat absorbing comments from almost three-dozen speakers including residents, church leaders, and members of the business community -- a voice that until Tuesday had been conspicuously absent from the chorus of discussion.

“We live in a city not Walden Pond,” Chamber of Commerce Chair Dr. Michael Gruning told council. “In this proposed ordinance the potential for abuse is monumental. If a sound officer can shut down a business for thirty days on a questionable complaint, then we are heading down an Orwellian road.”

The image of an Orwellian nightmare appeared apt for a draft ordinance that has been under intense scrutiny from its inception in June of this year. Aimed at curbing noise pollution across the city, the new draft has faced stiff criticism from all parts of the community.

Bill Woods, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica stood before the council and noted that his church, founded in 1875 -- the same year as the City of Santa Monica -- had always been a “good corporate citizen.”

Expressing concern for a noise ordinance that he felt failed to uphold the rights of the religious leaders, Pastor Woods noted that under the current draft, a choir rehearsal at 7:30pm would be an infraction of the new regulations.

“Please retain some kind of exemption for freedom for the wide variety of houses of worship,” Pastor Woods implored the council.

“Am I to tell my church organist that he can no longer play Bach fortissimo, am I to tell our youth group that they can’t have a spaghetti supper on the patio using the PA system?” he asked council members.

As the night wore on, the diverse array of speakers demonstrated how far-reaching the draft ordinance had become. Representatives from power and utility companies requested exemptions to allow for emergency repair work.

“(The ordinance would) limit our ability to operate a system in a manner that is consistent with public utility requirements to get maintenance done,” Mark Olson of Southern California Edison told the council.

Residents asked that exemptions currently made to parks and schools be removed because of the ever-increasing level of noise associated with outdoor activities.

“The city’s parks and schools have not been good neighbors to us as they promised they would be,” said resident Nick Ingram. “We’re all in favor of kids. We all played baseball, we all like all that stuff, but the levels of concentration that we’ve been getting lately is really quite noxious.”

Resident Jack Behr who lives across from Los Amigos Park explained how amplified noise from organized activities was plaguing the lives of residents in the area.

“We’re not unreasonable ‘Donald Rumsfeld-types’ here, we really like the parks and the kids,” Behr said. “The major problem we have is the coaches and aides who are there from 7 o’clock until the end of the day.

“I swear to you, no matter where a kid is standing the voice to him is ‘NOW WHEN I SAY, THROW THE BALL!!!’ and ‘LOUDER, I CAN’T HEAR YOOOU!!’” Behr shouted into the microphone, mimicking the voice of an over-zealous coach to the amusement of council and audience alike.

“It goes beyond inconsideration,” Behr added. “It’s teaching inconsideration.”

In the case of restaurateurs and bar owners, attributing blame for noise was a particular bone of contention. Just how ambiguous even the best compiled statistics can be was highlighted when Councilman Bob Holbrook asked the Executive Director of Main Street Merchants Association Gary Gordon how police identified the location of a suspected source of loud noise.

“Did you find that sometimes business addresses were indicated, and it turned out that that was the area or location nearest to where the noises were coming from to identify where the police officers should go?” Holbrook asked Gordon.

“Yes,” replied Gordon. “The analysis we had from the police department indicates that there are times when what looks like it might be a complaint about a Main Street business has either actually been called in by that business or is something going on in front of the business.”

Although the City of Santa Monica had reportedly received 11,000 noise complains in an 18-month time frame, Gordon said, the merchants on Main Street found that the figure was not an accurate reflection of the entire city.

Over the same 16-month period ending in April 2003, Main Street had received just 306 noise-related complaints.

“Only 25 have to do with businesses on Main Street,” Gordon explained. “Of the 25 the total in violation of the 60dB limit is unknown.”

Business owners from Santa Monica Pier also made their feelings known, citing the Pier as a huge attraction precisely because of the vibrant image it projects.

“When you have three-and-a-half million people coming to the pier in a single year, you know you’re doing something right,” said Marlene Gordon, who owns Playland Arcade.

“We don’t live in a vacuum, we live in a world surrounded by sound such as movie theatres, bowling alleys, concerts, arcades and amusement parks. We have the freedom to make choices,” she said of the conscious decision made by many residents to live close to the pier.

Residents brought with them samples from the soundtrack of their own lives. An audiotape recorded in the living room of one resident captured the cacophony coming from a nearby park.

A videotape from a balcony overlooking Main Street Farmers Market showed footage of a band cranking out a rock anthem at 10 on Saturday morning. Photographs identified industrial-sized air conditioners a stones-throw away from the top-floor windows of a residential building.

Resident Anita Holcomb held a plastic container brimming with empty glass bottles over an empty aluminum trashcan.

“This is what we hear right outside our bedroom window every single night,” Holcomb told council members.

Despite the pleadings of council members to refrain from providing sound effects, Holcomb proceeded to tip the bottles into the waiting trashcan. The effect in the closed confines of the chambers was deafening.

If it was a night for vaudevillian antics, it was also a night for the occasional gaffe. Maggie Sullivan of the Pier Restoration Corporation spoke eloquently about the need to refine the notion of ambient noise, citing that while the pier was in a “65dB noise zone” the “waves themselves are 66.5dB.”

“If we were held to our maximum noise limit then I guess nobody could say anything once they go to the pier,” Sullivan told council members. She then continued by questioning the whereabouts of the police force, much to the surprise of the uniformed Deputy Police Chief Sanchez sitting five feet from the podium.

“The thing that I’ve always found curious is that the police department is not represented here,” she told an incredulous council. “I think that noise is a very specific problem and I have to ask where are the police at this meeting?”

“I just wanted to ask (Deputy) Police Chief Sanchez to identify himself,” Mayor Pro Tem McKeown requested before a clearly shocked but good-humored Ms. Sullivan apologized for her mistake.

The importance of defining an effective ordinance that serves to protect the interests of current residents and business owners in the city whilst looking out for the next generation of Santa Monicans was brought into clear focus by resident Eric Schwartzman.

“I would like to introduce two of my neighbors and they’re partly who I’m here for tonight,” resident Schwartzman told council members, projecting the photographs of two smiling children on the chamber screen.

“One of them is Mac Hedges, he’s in sixth grade at Lincoln and sometimes I see Mac crying at the elevator when we’re getting ready to leave in the morning,” Schwartzman explained.

“He’s crying because he’s been up all night and he’s up all night because The Victorian is having parties and they have their doors open on the patio and the music is spilling out into the community and the kid can’t sleep.”

“The other is Maria Fallon in second grade and her mother is considering whether or not therapy might not be a way to deal with the stress that she’s experiencing as a result of sleep deprivation,” he added. “This is a real serious issue.”

Acknowledging the input from the people of the city, council members requested additional information from city staff in response to the evening’s discussion.

The council then asked that the response include, among other things, notes on enforcement, definitions of ambient noise levels in the city and clarification on the current exemptions in the draft noise ordinance.

City staff said they would aim to respond to the City Council’s request for additional information on September 9.

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