Navigating the sounds of a growing city

Navigating the sounds of a growing city
Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium at Alexandria City High School is now under scrutiny by local residents for noise concerns during evening events. (Photo/Wafir Salih)

By Wafir Salih |

Alexandria’s noise ordinance has undergone many changes since its inception in the early 1960s to address the challenges of a denser and louder population. Recent studies show prolonged exposure to high noise levels can have adverse health effects, leading to issues like poor sleep, stress, high blood pressure and noise-induced hearing loss.

The city last made amendments to the ordinance in 2021 when the Office of Environmental Quality and City Council collaborated to establish clearer guidelines and implement more restrictions regarding noise in residential and public areas.

The noise ordinance, explained

Bill Skrabak, deputy director of infrastructure and environmental quality, said the city has a specific approach to regulating noise.

“We regulate certain activities by the hours of the day with which they can occur,” Skrabak said. “We also regulate noise levels at the property line by the type of use that’s going on on that property, so those are the two main distinct strategies that we use.”

Skrabak said the city’s philosophy is centered around awareness and compliance, rather than immediately resorting to penalties.

“Our goal in enforcing the noise code is to achieve compliance,” Skrabak said. “We do have the ability to issue tickets, [but] the goal isn’t to issue as many tickets as we can, the goal is to achieve compliance. We do regularly encourage compliance by making people aware.”

Skrabak also said in most cases, simply informing individuals of a noise complaint is enough for them to stop.

“In many cases, that’s all we need to do, just make somebody aware that, ‘Hey, this was a problem, we got complaints’ and they address it,” Skrabak said.

Skrabak acknowledged the delicate task of regulating noise without stifling the city’s lively atmosphere.

“It’s a balancing act,” Skrabak said. “We’re trying to encourage people to enjoy and create vibrancy, but we also want to try to maintain a quality of life where it’s not completely disrupting.”

Alexandria now has a dedicated nighttime employee at their disposal who patrols the city at night to monitor noise levels. While Skrabak said the city is content with one inspector for now, he did not rule out the possibility of adding more positions in the future if deemed necessary.

Noise on the waterfront

Hal Hardaway, a former U.S. Navy captain and a vice chair for the city’s Environmental Council, shared his experience with extreme noise levels in the city.

“Six weeks ago, I was walking down the 100 block [of] King Street and it was painful,” Hardaway recounted. “It was somebody right in the middle of the block playing amplified music and I can’t believe people could stand it. Nobody was standing near him because it was actually painful.”

Hardaway also spoke about the broader impact of noise pollution in the area, particularly when it came to his former neighbors living along King Street.

“Some of them can’t sleep in the front of their houses because [of] all the cars going by,” Hardaway said. “They have to go to the back of their house to sleep.”

Neighbors concerned about ACHS noise

In the neighborhood surrounding Alexandria City High School, homeowners are voicing concerns about increased noise pollution following recent renovations.

In November 2020, the high school renovated Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium, which included a new set of lights being added to the field. Prior to renovations, residents in the area sued the school over the installation of the lights, which ended with a settlement where both parties negotiated on a consent agreement. The lights were allowed to go up shortly after.

Carter Flemming, one of the homeowners, said the lights have led to an increase in noise in the area.

“Previously when darkness fell, the school was quiet, and we enjoyed that,” Flemming said. “Now with the lights, the hours that the field can be used for various purposes are increased. So, obviously the noise is increased, because there are people using the fields that could not use them previously.”

Flemming described the types of sounds that have become common since the installation of the lights.

“It’s football coaches blowing whistles, yelling, groups of athletes chanting and yelling. Just as you could imagine what goes on with practice of a sport,” Flemming said. “We hear all of that coming from the school.”

Flemming raised concerns with ACHS regarding its compliance to the consent decree – which she asserts states that amplified sound systems should not be louder than 55 decibels. Flemming said homeowners had to hire their own sound consultant to measure the noise.

“We have not observed any noise ordinance enforcement at all,” Flemming said. “We have professional sound equipment. We record the noise. We discuss it with the schools. We have not gotten into legal action with them about the noise violations, though we have informed them that they are in violation of the noise ordinances.”

Flemming said while she does believe the school is trying to do right by the homeowners, she still believes elevated noise is an issue.

“You want to maximize the use of the fields, we all understand that,” Flemming said. “But to just say, ‘You don’t have to worry because the lights are just shining on the field,’ ignores the reality of what is going to be going on [at] the field while those lights are on.”

Opposition to gas-powered leaf blowers

Gas-powered leaf blowers have become a focal point of environmental and noise pollution discussions in recent years. Many states and cities across the country – including Washington D.C. – have taken steps to ban these devices.

In February 2022, House Bill 1337 was brought to the floor of Virginia’s General Assembly for a vote. The bill would grant localities the power to regulate and ban gas-powered leaf blowers through the noise ordinance. The bill was defeated in a 5-4, party line vote with Republicans constituting the majority, resulting in the resoution being tabled and effectively killed.

Quiet Clean NOVA is an organization working to raise awareness of gas-powered leaf blowers and the need for regulation. The group’s petition, calling for the General Assembly to give localities the authority to ban gas-powered leafblowers, has garnered support among the community with more than 2,250 signatures.

Susan Davis, a volunteer for Quiet Clean NOVA, compared the use of gas-powered leaf blowers to smoking.

“Everybody hates them,” Davis said. “I mean, except for maybe the people who use them, and I can’t imagine that they enjoy them. I think it’s the new smoking. Everybody’s got one, but they’re bad for everyone.”

Davis described how loud these leaf blowers can get.

“It kind of sounds like a truck that’s sitting there with its engine, going for hours in front of your house,” Davis said.

Davis is hopeful Democrats winning the legislature in last week’s election can make a difference on this matter.

“We’re hoping that the Democratic win this election will change the response to this. It doesn’t seem like it should be a political issue, but maybe it is,” Davis said. We weren’t able to get anywhere with the Republican house, so we’re going to go at it again this time.”

Davis also said she thinks certain lobbying groups could be working behind the scenes to oppose Quiet Clean NOVA’s efforts.

“I’ve been told before by someone in the know that there are lobbying groups. You know, that’s the opposition, that there are lobbying groups going to both houses,” Davis said. “Because their interest is to continue selling these and having no restrictions.”

Skrabak said the city is aware of the efforts to ban gas-powered leaf blowers and they’re looking to legislation to grant them the authority to do so.

“In our legislative package, we have been supporting legislation that would give localities more authority to regulate [gas-powered] leaf blowers. Because there are now alternatives,” Skrabak said. “You can get a battery-powered one that’s a little bit quieter than a gas-powered one.”

However, Skrabak asserts while the city is supporting such legislation, they cannot do much legally to ban gas-powered leaf blowers outright unless the State reverses course on HB 1337.

“After many consultations with our city attorney’s office, without any changes in Richmond, we could not just come in and prohibit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers,” Skrabak said. “So that’s why the city has been looking for support of potentially expanding local authority over that.”

Residents are encouraged to reach out to the Office of Environmental Quality if they witness potential violations at 703-746-4065. Those witnessing noise level violations occurring in real time are also encouraged to reach out to the Alexandria Police Department on their non-emergency line at 703-746-4444.