Monday, April 30, 2007

VOH: Noise Ordinance Bill Battle Likely

I'm behind on some developments, including the following story which ran in the April 12 version of Voice of the Hill. It is reprinted with permission.

While our neighborhood withers under one particular "religious" group's amplifier every weekend, labor unions also have a dog in this fight. It’s a very big dog.

The labor union representative quoted in the story, Rick Powell, attended a meeting of residents, ANC representatives, Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh, and the Office of Attorney General.

Obviously some disagreements exist on how the proposed fix would balance quiet rights for residents and protest rights for labor unions. But the bill's form is not final: Cheh has promised a hearing on the legislation, which will ensure all affected parties and experts are heard.

While I respect Powell's position, I must emphasize that polluting the commons is not a right. Just as free speech does not mean you should be "forced to access and read this blog whenever I desire," free speech should not mean "forced to listen." A person's right to create noise ends at my ear, after all.

Let’s us little guys—D.C. residents and small business owners—stick together on this.
Noise ordinance bill battle likely

A bill to strengthen the city noise ordinance was greeted with joy in one Northeast Capitol Hill neighborhood, but might not be as welcome with unions and civil rights organizations downtown.

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells proposed the Noise Control Protect Act after residents on and near Eighth Street, NE, convinced him that street preachers who gather near their homes every Saturday are exploiting a loophole written into the D.C. regulations.

At issue are members of a sect of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge who gather at the southeast portion of Eighth and H streets, NE, to preach sermons. Residents have been complaining to city officials for more than two years about the noise levels emitted from the group’s amplifiers. The residents have repeatedly said it’s not the content of the speech — the group has hung Jesus Christ and Santa Claus in effigy and said racial and homophobic slurs to passers-by who attempt to debate them — but the noise level that has them irked.

Wells promised the residents during his campaign that if elected he would plug the loophole. “This bill is intended to change the definition of a noise disturbance to both protect the First Amendment free speech as well as protect the health and peace of residents from amplified noise,” he said.

The noise code was changed in 2004 to exempt non-commercial speech during daylight hours. However, proponents of Wells’ bill say a loophole was created when the legislation language lifted all noise limitations citywide.

Unions agreed with the change after they were fined under the city’s noise ordinances during a protest at a downtown hotel.

If passed, Wells’ bill would better define noise parameters and sets a distance from which the noise will be measured. “A noise shall not be considered a noise disturbance if it is made during non-commercial public speaking during the daytime and does not exceed 70 decibels when measured at a distance of 50 feet from the source of the noise,” the bill states.

Wells said he expects to be brushed back by local union groups. “I expect strong union opposition,” he said. “But I’m really counting on the community, not just those affected by the noise, but all the residents of every ward that might be impacted by similar noise to provide the political will to get this done.”

The councilman said he worked on the bill with Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who is a constitutional law professor and head of the consumer and regulatory committee that will first consider the bill, to make sure no constitutional rights are being violated.

Wells said he consulted members from the local unions and civil rights offices in crafting the language.

Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union’s D.C. office said he couldn’t comment on the organization’s position at this time.

“The ACLU was very involved in helping to create the existing statutory exemption for noncommercial public speaking, which was intended to ensure that speech protected by the First Amendment would not be improperly silenced, so we'll take a careful look at this bill,” Spitzer said in a statement to The Voice.

Rick Powell, the political director for the local AFL-CIO, said Wells’ bill strips basic free speech rights from all D.C. residents, not just the group on the corner of Eighth and H streets.

“Aside from the group on H Street, there is no record of the current law being a problem,” Powell said. “We haven’t seen any evidence to date, aside from this group of citizens in Northeast.”

Powell said that there is a better way to handle the street preachers rather than taking away all D.C. residents’ right to protest. “People who want a resolution will find a way to get a resolution.”

Asked if he would mind the group conducting a sermon across the street from his house, Powell said, “I doubt if I would like it, but I would figure out a way to solve the problem.”

“While we appreciate not only the concerns but the problems the neighbors are having, we have to ask ‘how are the rest of us going to be protected?’” Powell added. “There’s a price you pay to live in a free society.”

During his 2006 campaign, Wells was endorsed by a handful of unions, including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Contrary to what Powell thinks, Eighth Street resident Dave Klavitter said the bill needs more teeth. Klavitter knows first hand about the noise levels as his home is roughly 50 feet from the corner in question.

“[The bill] will make the situation better for residents, but I don’t know by how much until we can test it. I don’t know if the legislation goes far enough,” Klavitter said. “I’m glad there’s progress being made. At least we’re ahead of where we were this time last year.”

The corner preachers have been clocked as high as 91.5 decibels and as low as 75.3 decibels, according to a report by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Wells said the 70-decibel level was reached after consulting the Environmental Protection Agency and metropolitan cities that have similar ordinances.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Does Video Accurately Portray Noise Issue?

I don't own a video camera, so I borrowed a friend's Casio digital camera with a video feature. I've hesitated to post videos about the noise issue because I don't think it provides you, the reader, an accurate portrayal of how the amplified noise affects residents and businesses living at H and 8th Streets NE every Saturday. (However, I did link to a WTOP News Radio audio story once.)

My reasons for not embracing video until this point:
    * Decibels: You control the sound volume--residents and businesses can not;

    * Duration: A thirty second video clip might be tolerable at any volume--residents and businesses are forced to hear more than four hours every weekend. To simulate, please replay the video 480 times;

    * Content: People fixate on the speech content, which is NOT the issue--residents and businesses believe noise negatively affects human health and well-being.
So with those disclaimers, I present you with some very amateur footage made on Saturday, March 24, 2007. The time was about 7:30 p.m. and I stood several steps away from my neighbor's yard, roughly 175 feet away from the noise source. My camera faces north along 8th Street NE, toward the southeast corner of the intersection.

In the video, you will hear the fellows preaching though the amplifier. You also will hear shouts from several girls waiting at the bus stop on the opposite corner. Please ignore the content.

The girls then crossed the street to debate the preachers. Notice they maintain distance from the blaring amplifier. I move closer (sorry for the herky-jerky movement)...

How do you think the videos portray the situation? Help or hinder?


Monday, April 23, 2007

Headline: ‘Street Evangelist Saves 300 Souls From Enjoying Park’

So reads the headline from the April 21 edition of the The Onion newspaper. An alert Quest for Quiet reader pointed out this fitting story, which includes this paragraph:
Hilson's bullhorn, which he often employs to bring recreation-seekers into the light of God's grace and drown out their iPod music, forced one-third to one-half of the souls to spurn the path they had chosen for that afternoon.

While meant to be satirical, the story is more truth than spoof for many residents of D.C. Read the full story here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Labor Protestor: ‘We Don’t Need Amplifiers’

(CLICK TO ENLARGE Copyright © 2007. David Klavitter) Forgoing amplifiers, representatives of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters make a huge racket April 12 in the courtyard between buildings at 601 Pennsylvania Ave NW in Washington, D.C. A larger group was marching on building’s other side. The group was protesting one tenant’s use of non-union labor in remodeling some office space.

When asked why the protestors were not using amplifiers--which D.C. law allows to blare at unlimited decibels in such circumstances anywhere in the city between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.--the group’s apparent leader said they didn’t need them. It was not the first time D.C. labor protestors told me they don't need amplifiers to get their message heard. I covered a similar instance last year in this this post.

Meanwhile, the group’s raucous shouting disturbed more than just the intended target. The noise disturbance apparently angered one man (left). He gave building management contact information to the protest leader, who promptly crumpled the paper, tossed it in the trash and resumed yelling. Apparently some confusion existed about whether the courtyard was private or public property (CLICK TO ENLARGE Copyright © 2007. David Klavitter)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Polluting the Commons is Not a Right

The national advocacy group "Noise Pollution Clearinghouse" provides a clear perspective on noise pollution. More is available on the group’s website:

The air into which second-hand noise is emitted and on which it travels is a "commons," a public good. It belongs to no one person or group, but to everyone. People, businesses, and organizations, therefore, do not have unlimited rights to broadcast noise as they please, as if the effects of noise were limited only to their private property. On the contrary, they have an obligation to use the commons in ways that are compatible with or do not detract from other uses.

People, businesses, and organizations that disregard the obligation to not interfere with others' use and enjoyment of the commons by producing noise pollution are, in many ways, acting like a bully in a school yard. Although perhaps unknowingly, they nevertheless disregard the rights of others and claim for themselves rights that are not theirs.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

WP: City Needs to Restore ‘Balance’ on Noise Issues

In a column about friction between Adams Morgan residents and the music scene over noise, Washington Post Metro Columnist Marc Fisher [A Counteroffensive on Mt. Pleasant's 'Voluntary' Music Bans (April 12)] says, "It's time for the city to step in and restore some balance. If the District enforced noise ordinances, there'd be no reason for anyone to be banning the bands."

Currently out of balance is a 2004 loophole in the city noise statute. The legislative language was drafted without all voices at the table.

The law exempts "noncommercial amplified speech" from any decibel limits anywhere in the city from 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Councilmembers Wells, Cheh, Brown and Catania have sponsored legislation to provide balance so residents and businesses can have relief from hours of amplified noise at decibel levels equal to a rock concert.

A confusing patchwork of D.C. noise laws, regulations and enforcement actions confront city residents and businesses. The city must look at the health and safety issue of noise as defined by decibels--and not focus on content.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Noise Bill Piques Some Media Interest

The Washington Times and the D.C. Examiner cover the introduction of the D.C. noise law by Tommy Wells.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wells Introduces Bill to Fix Broken D.C. Noise Law

An extremely quiet shout-out goes to Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who introduced a bill Tuesday intended to change the definition of a noise disturbance to both protect First Amendment free speech as well as protect the health and peace of residents from amplified noise.

Under the “Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2007,” non-commercial public speech measured above 70 decibels (dB) at 50 feet from the noise source would only constitute a noise disturbance if it were also found to be excessive under the “reasonable person” standard as defined by D.C. law.

Currently, no decibel limits exist for amplified noncommerical speech between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m anywhere in the District of Columbia. For most noises other than noncommercial speech, D.C. municipal code specifies maximum daytime sound levels--measured at the source or property line--at 60 dB for residential areas (55 dB night) and 65 dB for commercial areas (60 dB night).

The ideal legislative fix simply would strike the exemption language added in 2004. However, Wells’ action bring the 8th and H Street NE community one step closer to relief from hours of harmful amplified noise. Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), who chairs the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, indicated she will conduct hearings on the matter.

Props also are due to Councilmembers Cheh and Kwame Brown (at-large), who joined Wells by co-introducing the bill and Councilmember David Catania (at-large), who co-sponsored the proposal. Three hushed cheers for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 6A and 6C; the groups never wavered in support for the community’s cause, especially ANC6A Chairman Joe Fengler, as well as fellow D.C. residents and businesses who recognized the absurdity of the broken noise law.

In January and March, Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh, convened meetings with representatives of the H and 8th St NE community, ANC6A and labor unions to review legislative language drafted by Acting Attorney General Linda Singer’s office.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said he supports the noise fix.

Read Councilmember Wells' complete press release.

Councilmembers Tommy Wells, Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown introduced the following bill, which was referred to the Committee on ________________.

To amend the District of Columbia Noise Control Act of 1977 to permit noise made during noncommercial public speaking during the daytime to be considered a noise disturbance if it otherwise satisfies the definition of a noise disturbance and exceeds 70 decibels when measured at a distance of 50 feet from the source of the noise, and to specify that the Mayor need not measure the decibel level of a noise to find a noise disturbance if the noise is made at night or does not involve noncommercial public speaking.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE COUNCIL OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, That this act may be cited as the "Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2007".

Sec. 2. Section 3(n) of the District of Columbia Noise Control Amendment Act of 1977, effective March 16, 1978, (D.C. Law 2-53; 20 DCMR § 2799.1) is amended by striking the last two sentences and inserting two new sentences in their place to read as follows: "A noise shall not be considered a noise disturbance if it is made during noncommercial public speaking during the daytime and does not exceed 70 decibels when measured at a distance of 50 feet from the source of the noise. If the noise is made at night or does not involve noncommercial public speaking, the Mayor shall not be required to measure the decibel level of the noise in order to find a noise disturbance.".

Sec. 3. Fiscal impact statement.

The Council adopts the fiscal impact statement in the committee report as the fiscal impact statement required by section 602(c)(3) of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, approved December 24, 1973 (87 Stat. 813; D.C. Official Code § 1-206.02(c)(3)).

Sec. 4. Effective date.

This act shall take effect following approval by the Mayor (or in the event of veto by the Mayor, action by the Council to override the veto), a 30-day period of Congressional review as provided in section 602(c)(1) of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, approved December 24, 1973 (87 Stat. 813; D.C. Official Code § 1-206.02(c)(1)), and publication in the District of Columbia Register.