Gary Harkins has fought a losing two-year battle against the din of announcements and the shrill of bells at all hours of the day and night from the speakers high atop the middle school.
So when he heard that Payson is overhauling its nuisance noise ordinance, he finally figured he had an ally.
Sorry, Gary. You’re on your own.
That’s the gist of a discussion at the last Payson Town Council meeting about whether the town’s new noise ordinance will provide him with a way to make the school district listen to him over the sound of the loudspeakers.
Harkins’ complaint highlighted a discussion of the proposed overhaul of the noise ordinance, which also featured a discussion about whether the new law ought to include an exception for ice cream trucks to a provision that forbids trucks blaring amplified announcements or music driving through neighborhoods.
The meeting gave the council a second look at the new rules and another chance to debate whether to include clear-cut standards banning noise above a certain decibel level — as Sedona has already done.
But the highlight of the discussion was Harkins’ plight. A sound engineer, Harkins said he has precisely measured the noise generated by the speakers in his living room, in a house on the hill overlooking the middle school that’s perfectly positioned to get the full effect of those loudspeakers.
“They start up at 6:30 in the morning and it’s 20 to 200 times the ambient level of noise inside my home,” said Harkins. “It goes all day — sometimes until 11 p.m. — and the noise level in my living room is louder than my television set.”
Although he’s three quarters of a mile from the school, the settings and direction of the loudspeakers produce so much noise that when he’s having a conversation on his porch “I have to yell or just wait until the announcement finishes.”
He said he has repeatedly called the middle school to complain — and has even offered to fix the system himself, at no charge to the district.
He insisted that the people who installed the system made several mistakes. They pointed the speakers outward, instead of down into the school grounds.
“My neighbors have also complained. I’m just trying to get some peace and quiet,” said Harkins.
He said he ought to chain himself to the loudspeaker or something dramatic — even if he gets hauled away to jail. “Maybe the jail is quiet and I can get some sleep there,” said Harkins, leaning on a cane he’s been using since he broke his hip.
However, Town Attorney Tim Wright said there’s not much the town can do to help him.
“You do recognize that this is the town — that’s the school district,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
However, Wright said the current code does, in fact, regulate loudspeaker noise —but the school district doesn’t necessarily have to follow the town’s rules. The school district does have to get building permits, but is otherwise exempt from zoning ordinances and town codes.
The council also pondered the difficult question of the pied-piper tinkling of amplified music from ice cream trucks, which is technically illegal under both the present code and the proposed revisions.
“So would an ice cream truck be able to project amplified music?” asked Town Councilor Fred Carpenter.
“You could put in an exemption for ice cream trucks,” said Wright, although he noted that the music is an advertisement. “It makes your stomach rumble, so your kids will want some ice cream.”
Councilor John Wilson observed, “I feel for the ice cream vendor, with the tinkling little music going on. That’s not distasteful to anyone — except maybe to parents who don’t want the kids to have ice cream.”
Evans noted that the sound of an ice cream truck is already illegal, “but we haven’t been enforcing it.”
Police Chief Don Engler noted, “We haven’t had any complaints that I’m aware of.”
But Councilor Michael Hughes suggested that writing an exception into the code for ice cream trucks could unleash a musical horde. “Then you’ll have someone with tamales, or burgers, or whatever” with a musical tamale truck.
The session concluded with an inconclusive discussion about whether to include a decibel definition.
Wright urged the council to avoid including such specific standards, unless the town wants to hire someone with a noise meter.
“It’s very difficult to enforce,” said Wright. “Someone is going to have to go out there and wait for that noise to be repeated. Sedona goes with strict decibel levels, but they have a person designated as the sound person.”
Councilor Carpenter quipped, “and I hear they’re also having trouble with vortexes over there.”
Evans noted that some sounds are a nuisance, now matter how loud. “Certain sounds at different frequencies have a different irritation level.”
He noted that he preferred an ordinance that relied on more subjective judgments, without elaborate definitions. “You can’t write an ordinance that will force people to be good neighbors,” he said.