Across US, locals rebel against noise

The common culprits - and some new ones.

In rural California, neighbors want the mules to stop braying. In New York City, the ice cream man has to turn off the jingle on his truck, at least while he's handing out fudgesicles. Here in Raleigh, N.C., it's essentially one shout and you're out as the city council increases noise fines aimed in part at rowdy renters.

Shhh. Be very quiet. The noise patrol is coming to a siren, scream, or boisterous CD near you. Julius Caesar is believed to have been the first to enact a noise ordinance, banning creaky chariots from barreling around Rome at all hours of the night.

Now a grass-roots movement is gaining momentum from California's Gold Country to the honking streets of New York to turn down the decibel level on all things annoying - and even on some that aren't.

While most municipalities in America now have some kind of noise code on the books, local governments are taking new steps to bolster and tighten laws, pushing back - quietly, of course - against a cacophonous nation that loves its Harleys, leaf blowers, and "boom cars."

In some ways, it's just a fight against the inevitable march of civilization. "You used to reliably move to the suburbs and find peace and quiet," says Les Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. But now "we've made our suburbs noisy. We can't all buy 1,000 acres and hide in the middle of it."

Advocates of quietude say that among the most visible culprits are the bass amplifiers that now use the chassis of the car as a resonator, which in turn rattles walls and windows. The amps are even marketed with a sort of rebelliousness in mind, with one subwoofer manufacturer telling customers, "Disturb the peace."

To critics, such affronts are downright unconstitutional and even a cause of urban sprawl, as people move further out on the fringes to get some peace. "[Industries] market noise under the flag of freedom, which is counter to the Jeffersonian idea of freedom within the limits of the equal rights of others around us," says Mark Huber, a noise protester in Richmond, Va.

Since President Reagan cut the federal noise abatement program in 1982, state legislators have been forced to deal with the issue more directly - and often side with big industry. So today it's frequently up to county commissioners and precinct captains to address the thousands of noise complaints phoned in everyday.

And there are a lot of them: 83 percent of the calls to New York City's quality-of-life line in the past year were about "excessive noise," while the vast majority of calls to new 311"municipal emergency" lines in many cities concern sound complaints.

Music that is in ears of the beholder

In Austin, supposedly the Southwest's "Music City," police recently arrested three musicians leading a conga line for breaking the city's noise ordinance. Now the city council wants to change the ordinance so police can ticket people who violate the code even if no one has filed a complaint.

In Tamworth, N.H., some townspeople don't want any part of the sonic pleasures that a new European racetrack will offer, so they are pushing a far-reaching new noise ordinance. The racetrack owners, for their part, say they won't even be able to mow the lawn under the proposed code.

Here in Raleigh, N.C., a new fee hike for noise violations has resulted in a "first shout and you're out" policy by some property management firms. The fines imposed by the city council have become stiff enough that the property owners, who have to pay the penalties, won't tolerate any violators in their rental units. In Lorain, Ohio, police are known to smash illegal stereos with sledgehammers.

"Noise pollution has become an epidemic, and sufferers nationwide are not taking it quietly any more," says J.J. Surbeck, a San Diego resident and the webmaster at Noiselaw.org, which advocates for peace and quiet.

The loudest harangue, as usual, may come out of New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is championing a "silent nights" initiative that would lower decibels and hike fines. It's a plan drawing fire from business leaders and poorer neighborhoods. After all, last year New York cops got into a scrape with a Hispanic family that had been listening to music in their yard. The family insisted there had been no complaints, yet the cops arrested everyone, including the grandmother. The case was eventually thrown out of court.

Cases like this raise a more arcane question: Is there an objective standard for noise that everyone can agree on or is it simply that one man's symphony is another man's cacophony? Noise meters, experts say, can do some of the scientific measuring, but standards are still debatable.

Bloomberg critic Charles Barron, a New York City councilman from Brooklyn, says the idea of having Mr. Softee ice cream trucks turn off their jingle targets what he calls a "sound of the city" just to appease an individual's perception of annoyance. "Real loud music - boom cars, car alarms - those are legitimate concerns," says Mr. Barron. "But Mr. Softee? C'mon, that's a bit much."

In Placer County, Calif., on the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, the growth of the suburbs has set up perhaps the inevitable conflict of man versus mule. Late last year, a newcomer sued a neighbor over the nighttime brays of her companion, "Happy." His demand: $100 per bray. Happy's owner prevailed, after other neighbors testified that the mule's rough melody was a legitimate part of the country soundscape.

To some in Placer County, the question is whether objectively measuring sounds and educating locals with signs will actually lead to a quieter world. Some think the best solution is for neighbors to work it out among themselves. "We don't want to create an ordinance that's used to get rid of Happy the mule," says Gerry Brentnall, a Placer County planning commissioner.

Seniors versus car stereos

In St. Petersburg, Fla., some elderly activists did take matters into their own hands. Judy Ellis, upset over the sound from loud car stereos, got neighborhood permission to put up no-noise signs (they show a figure holding his ears). She also sued a local "boomer" who woke the neighborhood up every morning at 6:30, and she is working with local police in a sting operation to take out what she calls the "54th Avenue Boom Car Parade."

"We can feel the car coming before we see it..." says Ms. Ellis. "There's nowhere to run."

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