Asheville Seeks Input on Draft Noise Ordinance

Photo by Angelo Carniato.

Asheville – The City of Asheville is taking public comment on its proposed noise ordinance through December 4. To read the ordinance, which is just a few pages long, follow a maze of links from the “News” tab on the home page, accompanied by a wealth of supporting documents and instructions for supplying input or even filing a complaint within the existing ordinance’s framework. The finalized document is expected to come before city council sometime in February.

Police chiefs will frequently say the bulk of calls for service, contrary to public opinion, are for things like noise abatement. What’s too loud has always been subjective, and sometimes people feel they have to do things that make noise. Noise is unavoidable and doesn’t stay within the property lines; what constitutes a trespass into others’ rights has always been a gray area subject to interpretation.

Identifying a need to update existing rules, city staff began an analysis of noise ordinances from other municipalities back in February 2019. Then from March–June, it posted an online survey and made paper copies available at seven places known to have limited internet access. Beginning in April, the city convened 22 focus groups with representatives from various residential, business, industrial, and institutional communities. Then and afterward, several additional public meetings were held to report progress and receive feedback. Top annoyances proved to be construction, garbage trucks, industrial equipment, music from events and buskers, fireworks, hot rods, lawn care, and dogs.

The draft ordinance was completed in February, but then COVID arrived in March. Months later, the city now has enough confidence in pivots in public health and technological arrangements to resume moving the amendments through the approval pipeline.

Changes to the existing ordinance begin by setting objective limits, something that has not been feasible until recently. Whereas the existing documents define “noise disturbance” as “any unreasonable loud and raucous sound or noise which [among other things] disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivity;” the new ordinance spells out decibel (dB) limits for different types of noise at different times of day.

Caps are set between 57dB in commercial districts at night and 75dB in the Central Business District in the day. This is workable because of the availability of free decibel meter apps. The supporting pages for the city’s noise ordinance even encourage citizens to download the NoiseScore app developed by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. It not only allows the user to record ambient sound levels, it uploads the data to provide a live heatmap of noise across the country. Users can even zoom in and filter out sounds in case they’re only interested in tracking, say, barking dogs and leaf blowers. The product, of course, is in its fledgling stages, so it will be awhile before the map will serve broad interests.

The list of prohibited noise activities has been modified and reduced from nineteen to eight categories. Exemptions remain pretty much the same, although the order has been rearranged. They include government activities like emergency response alarms and military parades and government-permitted activities like construction, street fairs, and motion picture production. The regulation of dog barking falls under another ordinance.

Singing dogs will be not be regulated in the noise ordinance, but will be subject to animal control ordinances.
Singing dogs will be not be regulated in the noise ordinance, but will be subject to animal control ordinances.

Considerable attention is paid to after-hours construction noise. Without prior consent from the city’s Chief Building Official (CBO), this must be permitted and conducted in accordance with the noise-making equipment’s manufacturer’s instructions. Contractors will need to justify not completing the work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday–Saturday and must adhere to all procedures specified by the CBO, including the installation of appropriate noise barriers. Failure to comply with the terms of the after-hours permit could result in the CBO issuing a stop-order “for any permit issued to the violating party” and a civil fine of $500.

Also new is mandatory permitting for “any music venue in the city.” Permitting fees will be set each year during the city’s budget process, and renewals will be required every two years or whenever information on the permit changes. Failure to abide by the ordinance will result in revocation of the permit with time-out periods before reinstatement. Conditions for reinstatement include a one-year probationary permit that may be issued following the city’s acceptance of a sound mitigation plan and implementation schedule.

Other parties feeling the need to output more sound intensity than is allotted for the applicable zoning will also have to procure a permit, with fees TBA. Under no conditions will this noise be allowable between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., and under no circumstances will it be allowed to exceed 85dB. Applicants will be required to submit a floor plan showing furnishings and routes of possible noise trespass, among other things. For sound exceedance of longer durations, event organizers will likely be required to submit a sound impact plan that includes, among other things, a noise model prepared by an acoustical engineer. Guidelines stricter than those for reinstating revoked music venue permits will apply.

Civil fines for violating the noise ordinance through activities that do not require a permit have now been increased to $100 for the first violation with escalations for subsequent infractions. The Noise Ordinance Appeals Board will be effectively dissolved by the ordinance; instead, the Development Services Director will serve as sole arbiter for written appeals. This is deemed appropriate since decibel app readings are expected to replace a lot of he-said-she-said bickering with hard evidence.

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