New noise ordinance approved by City Council

The Williamsburg City Council passed a new noise ordinance Thursday after discussion and a minor amendment.

In April, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down Virginia Beach’s noise ordinance, which specified a level that would offend a “reasonable person,” as too vague. Williamsburg, and many other Virginia localities, also used the “reasonable person” standard and so must institute new, better defined ordinances.

The new law differs from Virginia Beach’s new noise ordinance, which sets absolute decibel levels depending on the time and location. Instead, the new law specifies 11 situations that City Attorney Joe Phillips said account for almost every noise complaint.

The situations include television, radio or musical instruments audible across residential lines, horns or whistles in general, yelling or shouting between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and gatherings of 10 or more people lasting 30 or more minutes that is not contained inside and is audible across property lines.

Phillips noted at the council’s Monday work session that the new ordinance is similar to that of Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech. In fact, he said, much of the ordinance was copied from Blacksburg’s municipal code.

As a catch-all, the city also included maximum noise levels in case of an unforeseen situation. In residential areas noise is limited to 65 decibels between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and 55 decibels between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Normal conversation averages around 60 decibels.

First-time violators face a class 2 misdemeanor charge, carrying a $300 fine. Subsequent violations in a one-year period will bring $500 fines.

Council member Paul Freiling ’83 questioned the radio and television situation, which in the original proposal applied 24 hours per day.

“If somebody’s sitting on their porch and happens to have a radio on, and the radio can be heard 11 feet away, and their property line is ten feet from the porch, then they are by definition here violating the noise ordinance when, if they were simply out mowing their lawn, they’d be making far more noise than they ever could with the radio,” Freiling said.

Phillips confirmed that Freiling was correct.

“I guess I have a little bit of a — and I understand the challenges here, and the difficulties here — but I have a little bit of a concern about this, and perhaps it’s unfounded, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a potential for situations to exist where there are already contentious relations between neighbors that could become exacerbated when this sort of tool comes into somebody’s arsenal, to get back at a neighbor for some other perceived offense, just to make their lives miserable,” Freiling responded.

“That certainly is a chance that exists,” Phillips responded. “Unfortunately, we have no ability to use a reasonable person standard anymore, which would come into play and apply to what you’re talking about.”

Williamsburg Chief of Police Mike Yost testified that amending hours to the television and radio situation would not burden enforcement. He noted that, while over 400 noise complaints were registered last year, few made it to court.

“I could count them on my hand, the number of summonses we actually issued, because the officers really work hard at mitigating these things… and most of the time people comply,” Yost told the council. “When they don’t they’ll write a summons.”

After some discussion, the council voted to amend the ordinance for television and radio noise across property lines to apply between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Freiling also questioned events pertaining to the College of William and Mary. College-sponsored events on College property are exempt from the ordinance, but events hosted by groups other than the College, such as the Alumni Association, are not. Although he seemed concerned that events such as tailgates at the Alumni House, on the edge of campus, could be in violation of the ordinance, Freiling did not pursue the matter further.

The council approved the amended ordinance unanimously. The new law goes into effect ten days after passage, on Sunday, August 23.

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