Ouray City Council Sounds Off on Noise Ordinance
OURAY - It is easy to agree something ought to be done to improve Ouray’s confusing noise ordinance. But, as the Ouray City Council discovered in a discussion last week, there’s a lot of devil in the details of how to do so.
How close is too close? How loud is too loud? How late is too late? Who gets to decide what’s unreasonably annoying, and what’s not?
“The current code is pretty worthless,” Councilman John Ferguson asserted. “It’s pretty much, what is reasonable to one is not reasonable to another; there is no way you could make a decision on that.”
This problem became apparent in May, when council voted unanimously to renew a popular pub’s liquor license, despite one neighbor’s allegation that the pub’s late-night live music violated the city’s noise ordinance.
O’Brien’s Pub is located in the C-1 Commercial district in downtown Ouray, and occasionally hosts live music from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Neighbor Paul Sunderland resides immediately adjacent to the pub in the recently renovated Story Block building, which contains residential condominiums on the second floor.
Sunderland, an attorney and the building’s developer, lodged a complaint with the city against O’Brien’s on behalf of himself and other members of the Story Block Condominium Association, alleging that O'Brien's live music is an unreasonable noise, a nuisance, and even disorderly conduct, and therefore should be prohibited according to city code.
A review of that code shows that Sunderland may have been within his rights, at least as he interpreted them, to make such claims. The city’s noise ordinance states that it is “unlawful for any person to make, continue, or cause or permit to be made or continued any unreasonably excessive, unnecessary or unusually loud noise or any noise which unreasonably annoys.”
Per the ordinance, prohibited noises include (but are not limited to):
• the operation or use of any musical instrument, radio, tape recorder, music instrument, phonograph, or similar device between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. in such a manner as to be plainly audible at a distance of fifty feet from the building, structure or vehicle in which it is located. (In those areas zoned "C-1" or "C-2", said distance shall be 150 feet.);
• the use of loudspeakers, amplifiers or other devices for amplification of sound which is broadcast over public property for the purpose of commercial advertising or attracting the attention of the public to any building or structure, or to a performance, show or sale.
The ordinance goes on to list a dozen factors to be considered in determining whether a noise is unreasonable, including its volume and intensity, whether it is usual or unusual, the proximity of the noise to residential sleeping facilities and the zoning of the area within which the noise emanates.
Council agreed that one of the problems with the city’s sound ordinance is defining what is “plainly audible” and “unreasonable,” because that is “pretty broad and pretty subjective.”
Therefore, radio engineer Ethan Funk was invited to the work session to edify council on how such a thing might be understood, scientifically measured, and thereby fairly and consistently enforced.
Funk explained the concept of measuring units of sound according to their decibels (dB), typically measured with frequency weighting to more accurately represent how loud something actually sounds to a person.
There is a difference in human perception, Funk said, between perceived loudness and frequency. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified the noise level at which it becomes necessary to start protecting against hearing loss and other disruptive effects from noise such as sleep disturbance and stress, at 70 dB.
That level of noise is slightly louder than a handheld electric mixer, and about the same, according to measurements made by Funk using a digital instrument sound level meter, as daytime traffic along Main Street in downtown Ouray.
By comparison, two dB measurements of music emanating from O’Brien’s at 10:30 p.m. on the evening of June 28, taken from a distance of about 150 feet, came in at 66dB. The same live music, measured at 11:45 p.m. from the same location after the volume had been reduced as a concession to Sunderland’s complaints, was only 45 dB.
“Messing with the threshold and distance ratio, the laws of physics will take it from there,” Funk said, explaining that the perceived sound level generally gets twice as loud at half the distance.
Council tussled with the infinite variables that could come into play if they decided to set a dB threshold in town, such as whether the sound is coming out of an open door versus through adjoining walls.
“If you are going to expect to live next to a club or bar, common sense says you ought to soundproof your walls,” one councilman grumbled.
Mayor Bob Risch suggested that if council wants to overhaul the city’s noise ordinance, a good starting place would be studying what other communities have done. This assignment was delegated to the City of Ouray’s Community Development Committee (CDC).
Ferguson said that whatever solution is eventually arrived at should include a variance for commercial operations. “If you have a bar, you can’t expect it to shut down at 8,” he said. “We don’t want to set a (noise threshold) level that will force people to shut down.”
Funk further cautioned council not to embrace code changes that would be too restrictive or impossible to enforce, resulting in a ridiculous scenario in which “every truck that goes down Main Street would be in violation.”
Jen Smith, who is on the on the CDC and is also the proprietor of O’Brien’s Pub, suggested two separate noise thresholds, one for residential areas, and one for commercial areas, with separate criteria from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. and from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“I would like the noise ordinance to be more defined,” she told council. “We need to know where to stop, so it would be fair for everyone.”
The permutations became more problematic as council pondered matters such as noisy commercial activity (construction, for example) in a residential area.
“And what about emergency noises?” Smith asked. “There needs to be an exemption for horns and alarms.”
Ferguson suggested the new ordinance should also address the difference between sustained versus intermittent noise.
“You need to make it like a speed limit, an absolute limit,” Funk recommended. “You need to accommodate bursts of momentary loudness.”
Council charged the CDC to conduct research and report back in a future work session, and to experiment with equipment for measuring decibel levels.