Noise: It’s tricky. One man’s boom box is another man’s nuisance.
So how’s a nice mountain town supposed to control all that nasty noise?
“Noise is like beauty,” mused Payson Councilor Michael Hughes at a recent town council hearing devoted to the topic of the town’s noise ordinance, “it’s in the eye (ear?) of the beholder.”
The town council raised a ruckus on the topic last week, trying to offer some guidance to Town Attorney Tim Wright on how to update and overhaul the town’s disjointed restrictions on raising a racket.
Wright said that a chatter of recent noise complaints about dogs, leaf blowers, off-road vehicles, cars without mufflers and blaring boom boxes had underscored the cacophony of noise regulations scattered throughout the town code.
“Do you want us to keep enforcing what we have, tweak it or make some wholesale changes?” asked Wright.
Wright said some of the violations in the current code are criminal, some civil. Civil violations bear a maximum fine of $250 and can be proven by a “preponderance of evidence,” while criminal violations have fines of up to $2,500 and must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The key question came down to whether the town should rely on some “objective” measurement like decibel levels or draft a law that gave the police or code enforcement officers an ability to use their own judgment about whether a noise was a nuisance.
In the end, the council asked Wright to make some wholesale tweaks and come back with a proposed ordinance that town staff has some hope of enforcing.
However, the topic set off a din of doubts and questions, suggesting that overhauling the noise ordinance could prove as vexing as a neighbor’s leaf blower bright and early on a Sunday morning.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said past councils have stuck anti-noise provisions almost randomly into the town code as complaints arose.
“Every time there was a complaint, the council would pass an ordinance, so through the years we ended up with seven places in the town code where the issue of noise pollution is addressed.”
Councilor Fred Carpenter, who previously served as the town manager, said while working for the town he’d often tried to nudge the council into drafting a reasonable ordinance. “It’s time for a comprehensive approach.”
Councilor Ed Blair favored an approach that relied heavily on actually measuring noise levels.
“Then you don’t have people arguing ‘this is too loud.’ Then, ‘No, it’s not too loud.’ We could say, ‘We’re sorry, but your dog really does bark too loud.’”
But Wright said a noise ordinance based on measuring decibel levels would pose all sorts of practical problems.
For one thing, the unruly neighbor may have turned off his boom box or quieted his dog before the police officer with the noise measuring thing-a-ma-jig shows up. Moreover, some very irritating noises may not measure well — like the bass in a boom box that can rattle windows but leave most decibel devices unmoved.
Evans threw in his own observations about subjectivity, making a rare reference to the day a downed 40,000-volt transformer cable electrocuted him, burning away half his hand.
“To this day, the sound of a transformer box is like a million fingernails on a chalk board to me — so we can say that we can have a totally objective standard, but we can’t.”
Carpenter agreed. “In spite of my age, loud rock and roll music doesn’t bother me — but dogs do.”
But Blair persisted, “I’m really struggling with the subjective standard — who is going to decide what’s too loud?”
“Ultimately it’s the judge’s job after hearing all the evidence,” said Wright.
“But how is the judge going to decide? Will there be a tape recording?”
Wright said, “If everyone says it was too loud, but the ordinance says you need to have a tape recording, then what can you do” if you couldn’t make a recording?
In the end, Councilor John Wilson proposed a compromise, referring to an earlier comment by Wright that an ordinance could include provisions making some things “per se” or “presumed” violations. As examples, he cited a car without a muffler or playing music outdoors after midnight.
Wilson suggested that perhaps the ordinance could preserve a mostly subjective approach, but include a provision making noise above a certain decibel level a “per se” or presumed violation of the ordinance.
With that, the council directed town staff to quietly develop a comprehensive noise ordinance and then come back to the council for approval.