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A Noisy Noise Annoys an Oyster

By Frank Gruber

The City Council recently held a public hearing on revisions to the City's noise ordinance ("Council Gets Earful on Noise," July 24), which reminded me of two occurrences from my days on the Planning Commission.

One involved the Pier. When Pacific Park wanted to extend its hours, some neighbors had complaints about noise.

One neighbor testified that she had moved to her apartment on Ocean Front Walk, near the Pier, two years before, and that she had initially been thrilled to move near the ocean. But she thought it would be quiet -- "like Mendocino," she said -- and was surprised it wasn't.

The other incident involved a 24-hour Jack in the Box on Wilshire that had an outdoor speaker system that kept neighbors up at night with orders for hamburgers and fries.

I remember commissioner Kathy Weremiuk well summarizing the issue with the words, "bottom line, people need to sleep."

There is a lot of ground between unrealistic expectations about what life would be like next to a world famous pleasure pier on a beach on the edge of fifteen million or so people and the simple desire to get a good night's sleep.

I'm conflicted about noise myself. My house overlooks the basketball courts and baseball and soccer field at Los Amigos Park, and as I write this I can hear shouting and squealing from the day camp that uses the park on summer weekdays. During the year two elementary schools and a pre-school use the fields, and there is AYSO soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring. Adults play soccer and basketball when the fields and courts are free.

My wife is a professor and she spends much of the day working in her study. When we built our house we pointed the study away from the park, even though the view is great in that direction, to minimize the noise. Nonetheless, and although I doubt that at this distance the noise measures all that many decibels, cheers, shouts, whistles, and announcements can still permeate the house.

I'm not surprised that many of the most vocal advocates for a more restrictive noise ordinance are my neighbors, but I can't in good conscience join them. Henry, my 13-year old son went to school at Los Amigos and played little league at the park, and I have spent many hours in the stands, not thinking about decibels when it came to cheering.

Henry also plays the saxophone, and I've had neighbors comment, good-naturedly, on the improvement he's made since he started practicing. He sometimes has ten friends over for a water fight and I'm sure they break 60 decibels, the daytime residential limit. (Sixty dBA is roughly the loudness of normal conversation.)

A noise ordinance can't do that much to make a city a quieter place. The City adopted the current ordinance in 1995. I'm sure people thought it would do great things, but now, just eight years later, it's up for review.

Municipal noise ordinances have inherent limitations. For jurisdictional and practical reasons they can't do anything about some of the loudest noises, such as aircraft noise, traffic noise, and safety alarms. Countervailing public needs result in other exemptions -- the Santa Monica law, for instance, exempts noise from schools, parks, and city activities.

Noise ordinances are inherently hard to enforce because of the transitory nature of noise.

Noise ordinances can establish a normative system in favor of more consideration for the ears of one's neighbors, but norms only work to some extent. We have an ingrained cultural norm that married couples should stay married, but that doesn't stop people from getting divorced.

Norms, however, can provide impetus for behavior modification. For instance, the laws against drunk driving didn't do much good by themselves, but then Mothers for Drunk Driving came along, someone invented the "designated driver," and now fewer people drive drunk.

The changes in the law that city staff is proposing do not dramatically change the ordinance, but they generally make sense.

The most basic change is to measure sound at the location of the hearer, rather than from the source of the sound. What this means is that a noise that might be quiet enough in a commercial zone to satisfy the commercial standard but which leaks into a residential zone testament will need to satisfy the lower residential standard. A "transition zone" for the first 100 feet will reduce the hardship on the commercial operation.

The changes also include a clearer rule for "business support operations," such as refuse removal, that resonate loudly and annoyingly when performed at night in an alley or in a parking lot adjacent to residences. The new law prohibits these activities after eleven in most of the city. It's unlikely that police will be around to give many tickets for violations that might last for only 30 seconds, but this is the kind of rule than can become "internalized" by businesses.

The City Council has asked for more information from staff, and has scheduled a continuation of the hearing for September 9. Although there are many issues, what are likely to be most controversial are two changes to the ordinance the Planning Commission proposed, in response to public comment, that staff has wisely not recommended.

These proposals are to eliminate the existing ordinance's exemption for activities in parks and at schools, and not to exempt the downtown area from the new restrictions on nighttime business support operations.

While my Los Amigos neighbors are among the proponents of including parks in the ordinance, I can't agree, and not just because I have a kid. Parks and schools are integral parts of good neighborhoods, like ours. Park users and schools should try to be good neighbors, but it would be absurd for a noise ordinance to criminalize normal park and school behavior, none of which interferes with sleeping hours.

Violating the noise ordinance is a misdemeanor. Can you imagine police arresting soccer players or parents or coaches for too much enthusiasm?

My wife might prefer more quiet when she's working in her study, but the fact is she's working. Residential zoning does not exist to protect people who work at home -- it exists to separate commercial activities such as work from residential activities, which include children at play.

For similar reasons, the noise ordinance has to treat a mixed-use neighborhood like downtown differently from exclusively residential neighborhoods. Downtown is active at all hours, or most of them, and people who choose to live there -- much like someone who chooses to live next to the Pier -- cannot expect the same standard of quiet.

People who live in cities need to have realistic expectations about their environment. People also need to be considerate enough of their neighbors so they can sleep at night. Laws can only do so much to make people happy -- a good law on noise would keep those two principles in mind.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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