Asheville – After two years, Asheville City Council approved a noise ordinance. Prior attempts were abandoned, primarily because of the subjectivity of the matter. However, with more people and more development, city leadership was feeling the pressure. The hero of the night, from all perspectives, was going to be Development Services Director Ben Woody, for shepherding the decision, whichever way it would go, to a conclusion.
In the end, the conflict boiled down to one or the other set of decibel caps. Musician Andrew Fletcher captured the state of affairs with references to Goldilocks. For some people, proposed permissible noise levels were too soft, for others, they were too loud, so, Fletcher concluded, the proposed middle ground must be just right – at least as far as crafting ordinances go. Many speakers were of the opinion that the council should pass something and have staff report back in maybe six months with any recommended adjustments. Nobody mentioned the old adage about when reasonable people hold widely divergent opinions on a topic, the law should remain (pardon the pun) silent.
Going into the public hearing, the room was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, like sardines wearing masks. Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had five pages of names of persons signed up to speak, and it appeared she’d have a sixth before long. As the meeting progressed, she observed, “other groups are forming here,” as people with similar complaints organized to get the group time of 10 minutes, instead of the individual’s three. Later, Councilwoman Kim Roney said she had received 521 emails on the matter. Throughout the evening, many people who had been vocal throughout the process reiterated their stances, but little, if anything, seemed to move any needles.
The latest draft of the ordinance proposed capping everyday noise trespass at between 65dB and 75dB, with differences depending on zoning district and time of day. Above that, sound exceedance permits could be granted for construction sites, performance venues, and other places and activities that could not abide by the standards.
Rick Freeman from the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods (CAN) was first to speak. He first objected to the levels imposed on exceeding permits, saying trespass from venues that are annoying neighbors are already below those limits. He then called attention to World Health Organization guidelines that suggest 45dB is the noisiest municipal ambiance should be at nighttime. Julie Snyder, complaining about the constant hum from Mission Hospital, not to mention low-flying helicopters, told of people workers and schoolchildren under performing when they can’t get a good night’s sleep. Noise leads to hearing loss, and if it keeps people awake, studies have shown it can lead to stress, cognitive impairment, diabetes, and heart disease.
Fletcher countered with reference to studies that show that music is good for health. He further gave examples of sound volumes: normal conversations occur at around 60dB, and light rain showers run around 80dB to 90dB. Bob Clifford, also from CAN, however, described 85dB as, “loud and in your face.” He said 85dB is an industry-standard limit. Any employer subjecting his employees to louder noises must provide them with earplugs and regular hearing tests.
Pat Whalen, who’s doing an excellent job keeping the vibrancy downtown that Julian Price worked so hard to spark, spoke about how the ordinance would impact the Orange Peel, and now Rabbit Rabbit, an outdoor venue set up to try to keep the music alive during the pandemic. While Whalen was respected by other speakers as a good neighbor wanting to work things out, he said he could use 10dB to 15dB more for a normal show and added that, failing to get this allotment, a lot of artists will just skip Asheville.
An outlier complaint came from neighbors living around Planned Parenthood. Representing this group, John Smith told of how Saturdays start at 7:50am with military-grade megaphones providing the whole neighborhood with gory details about abortion in order to shame girls out of going inside.
Ancient arguments resurfaced about the differences between noise and music and good and bad music. Manheimer told of constituents complaining to the city that they had a concert in their living room, and they didn’t want it there. Roney said a lot more people would find it more tolerable to listen to her play Chopin on piano than to listen to something at the same volume that was heavy on the bass. Steve Rasmussen was not impressed by “wannabe guitar heroes” wailing at odd hours of the night. Rasmussen, a musician himself, said he never considered decibels to be a measure of his talent.
Throughout the meeting, members of the council would mention the multitude of conversations they’d had and how they’d worked with sound engineers, paying visits with decibel meters to allegedly noisy areas. When things came down to the wire, though, Roney and Councilwoman Sage Turner wanted to approve slight increases in overall permissible volumes with slight downgrades for residential areas, but they were outvoted. Then, the ordinance passed with staff’s recommendations and one amendment to prevent permitted fireworks displays from occurring on consecutive nights.
The evening was not without humor. Early on, when Manheimer learned of acoustic problems in the overflow room, she asked if anybody in the house knew anything about sound. Then, after Fletcher’s announcement that he was speaking at 64dB was followed by an outburst of applause, which is not permissible during public comment, Manheimer dryly declared, “OK. Your clapping just went up to 80.”