City proposes extensive changes to noise control ordinance

City proposes extensive changes to noise control ordinance
(Photo Credit: Sam Kittner/Visit Alexandria)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Over the past few months, city staff has been working to craft potential changes to the city’s noise control ordinance that would bring it up to date.

The proposed changes are comprehensive and would impact everything from noise in multi-family buildings to home construction sound. While some changes, such as increased commercial noise limits, would support the business community, some residents have expressed concern over the lack of clarity in the new ordinance.

Originally passed in 1963, the city’s noise ordinance is outdated and fails to address the changing landscape of a rapidly developing city, Craig Fifer, communications director for the city, said.

“The City’s noise code is more than 50 years old, so it is past time to take a fresh look and make sure it reflects the way residents and businesses operate today; new technologies; court decisions and other perspectives,” Fifer said in an email.

City staff will present the proposed changes to council by early spring 2020, Fifer said.

The ordinance regulates noise based on permitted hours for specific activities, noise limits for particular uses and specific prohibitions and exemptions to the code. The city uses decibels, a unit for describing sound pressure, to measure sound limits.

A “quiet automobile at low speed” registers at 50 decibels and ordinary conversation between two people who are three feet away from each other hits between 60 and 70 decibels, according to the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority. A power mower registers at 100 decibels and amplified music can reach 120 decibels.

These decibel limits apply differently to residential, commercial and industrial properties. Staff is proposing to add a new category – institutional – that would encompass schools, government buildings, public parks, hospitals and churches.

According to a staff presentation of the proposed revisions, decibel limits for residential and industrial properties would remain the same – 55 and 70 respectively.

The proposed changes would increase commercial daytime limits, between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., from 60 to 65 decibels. Commercial nighttime hours, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., would remain at 60 decibels.

For some businesses, the increased decibel limit is too minor but a move in the right direction.

“It’s still pretty stringent for a business, but at least it’s going up a little bit,” Joe Haggerty, president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, said. “… I guess we’re trying to find the balance here between a restaurant wanting to have some music and somebody that’s close by being bothered by the music.”

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The maximum limit for noise at a given property is measured not from the center of the property, which might be the source of the noise, but from the property line.

“Whether a person is playing rock music on their [residential] property at 120db or having a conversation at 60db, it should not be heard above 55db beyond their property line,” Fifer said in an email.

One major change to the ordinance would define properties according to use, not the zoning category. This distinction would mean that businesses in residential zones could now exceed residential property noise limits, since they are commercial-use properties. The impact of the change could impact certain neighborhoods in the city.

“If you look at some of the residential communities, there are lots of places in Alexandria where you have a small block of businesses mixed with what’s otherwise a residential neighborhood,” Jol Silversmith, president of the Rosemont Citizens Association, said. “If I understand what’s happening, those businesses would now be able to have a higher noise threshold than the house next door.”

Other changes are meant to address areas of noise control that until now haven’t been regulated.

The city is considering new permitted hours for specific activities, most notably construction being done by homeowners on their own home, otherwise known as DIY construction.

“DIY construction is a common source of noise complaints but is currently exempt from regulation,” Fifer said. “We are proposing that this type of noise be limited to similar times as for power lawn and garden equipment.”

New provisions would limit DIY construction to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.on Saturday and Sunday, according to a staff presentation.

One of the most significant changes aims to address noise within multi-family buildings.

“This has been a tricky area for us,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “… In a city that’s rapidly becoming much more urban, with much more multi-family housing, it’s a continuing problem, one that we hear over and over again.”

The new provisions would define multi-family property lines as both the boundary that separates the building from other surrounding properties and the vertical and horizontal boundaries that separate one unit from another, according to the draft ordinance.

The city’s proposed changes aim to address a lot of code sections, but the process and procedure behind the initiative has left some residents and business owners asking for clarity.

“The concern comes down to the process, on more than one level,” Silversmith said. “On one level, there are some substantive changes proposed that are not well disclosed in the materials put out to the public.”

In October, the city organized public meetings and provided an online forum for community input in order to educate residents on potential changes.

However, the language behind certain new restrictions creates more confusion than understanding, Silversmith said.

“For example, there are some restrictions on the noise that animals can make, but whoever was writing the proposal managed to garble the language such that if you read it literally, people are now responsible for ensuring that wild animals on their property are not making noise,” Silversmith said. “I seriously doubt that that’s what’s intended.”

Other aspects of the proposed changes are clear, especially those that pertain to enforcement.

The city proposed to increase fines for noise violations. First violations would increase from a $50 to $100 fine; second violations would increase from a $100 to $250 fine and third violations would increase from a $250 to $500 fine.

Staff is still working to craft a comprehensive and easily enforceable ordinance that protects quality of life, Wilson said. However, clarity remains the most necessary piece of a changing ordinance for both policy makers and residents.

“The key is clarity. We can deal with the policy questions, but more than anything, I want to make sure we have an ordinance that is clear, that is easy to enforce,” Wilson said. “Ambiguity is what breeds litigation, so I’d like to arrive at an ordinance that doesn’t have that ambiguity in it.”

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