Facts, not emotion, will protect New Orleans from unwarranted, excessive noise

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Louis Armstrong is safely resting in his grave, and just to reassure all readers, the great, New Orleans-born jazzman of the 20th Century and his immeasurable legacy have nothing to fear from the new ordinance on noise pollution that’s coming before the New Orleans City Council.

In fact, I believe he would be horrified at what has happened to Bourbon Street. The class acts he knew are mostly gone replaced for the most part by super amps and bass woofers that blast the night away with zero respect for the environment of the French Quarter. Bourbon Street has become a caricature of itself.

After years of community hearings and studies, an amended ordinance,  with wide political and community support, was introduced in December and will be voted on before Mardi Gras. And the new codes won’t stop the next Jelly Roll Morton or Mahalia Jackson or Aaron Neville from emerging from the sidewalks of the Crescent City — as some folks have suggested in recent days. Indeed, despite what’s been published in some local newspapers under the appropriate heading of “opinion,” there is no “anti-music law” that is currently before the council. There is a pro-public-health ordinance — one that has been carefully crafted so that residents and property owners can enjoy the music and the magic that is New Orleans without the scourge of excessive and unwarranted noise.

So let me say this again: Not a single live musician need worry about his or her job.

Therefore, it is discouraging to see some well-meaning citizens equate “noise pollution” with music. This ordinance is about sound pressure, volume and damage, not live music. It’s not about musicians at all; but, about greedy bar and nightclub owners who don’t want to either turn down the volume and/or close the doors and windows, or spend money sound proofing their establishments.

 But there are those who would rather use emotion, not facts, to support the alcohol businesses who profit from the unlawful noise that has become a war of amplified sound emanating from bars in this town. If there was no problem do you think people from all over town would be working so hard for years to fix it?

It’s disheartening to see opponents of eardrum-damaging middle-of-the-night noise pollution branded as “elitists” and to hear sometimes silly claims about what it means to be a homeowner in the heart of a music city like New Orleans as well as unfounded allegations about the nature of a highly representative and inclusive  citizens’ groups who just want laws about zoning and noise fairly applied.

The proposal that was introduced last month (you can read the ordinance here) sets reasonable (and arguably lenient) decibel limits on noise pollution, spells out how the ordinance can be better enforced. It also clarifies the existing law that the measurement should be at the property line of the sound source.

In taking up noise pollution — which has run so rampant in recent years that police officers trying to keep the French Quarter safe for residents have been unable to even hear their radios or cries for help for that matter– the City Council is doing what any good governmental body would or should do. They are debating a measure that was drafted to protect the health, safety and property values of the city’s residents.

This action is not being considered willy-nilly, but it comes after years of testimony and study by outside experts who looked closely at various measures to control noise pollution and at the handful of cities with music scenes worth mentioning in the same breath as New Orleans. In contrast, the opponents who raced to brand this measure as an “anti-music” ordinance or asserted that talented musicians would be put out of work have not consulted any independent experts, nor have they presented any factual or scientific evidence that would support their highly emotional claims. Many claim that the Council is not following the advice of the researcher David Woolworth which the City unfortunately hired without knowing his background as a rock musician who works with nightclubs. The person responsible for hiring Woolworth abruptly resigned after all this came out. The Council was also unaware of the fact that Mr. Woolworth was working for New Orleans bars at the same time he was consulting with the city. That’s right. At the same time Woolworth was working for the City Council he was soliciting business from lawyers defending noise cases and sharing confidential information with Mr. Robert Watters of the Bourbon Street Business Alliance and lawyers for the bars. It is these folks who are behind the scene trying to kill these reasonable laws.

Let’s look again at some of the facts about this public health measure:

Fact: The amendments would return some decibel levels to 1997 levels — which is not exactly the Dark Ages but rather a time when the music scene in the Big Easy was the envy of the cultural world, just as it remains today. New Orleans sound levels will still be among the most tolerant in America. Bourbon Street will retain the loudest sound levels permissible in the city (and the nation). In fact it will permit almost a doubling of the allowable sound as the current ordinance meant to establish.

Fact: The measure that allows code officers to check for noise violations at the property line of the venue or source of a possible violation is a) common sense b) in line with noise ordinances in comparable cities (Austin) c) unlikely to affect clubs now presenting the kind of live music that honors the cultural heritage of New Orleans. Common sense suggests we check sound where created, not send police into people’s homes to see if they have a “right to complain.” It’s simpler, more logical, to measure at a bar’s property line. Our laws should regulate behavior, not impact. By law, music venues are responsible for the volume of the sound emitted from their location, and amplified sound is particularly vulnerable to excess.

Fact: Scientists are increasingly learning that noise pollution is damaging at lower levels than once believed, and that the health impacts from exposure to excessive noise go well beyond hearing loss (not that hearing loss isn’t bad enough.) The World Health Organization (WHO) has conducted studies that show the relationship between “environmental low level noise exposure and health effects, including cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, increased blood pressure, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance (and deprivation), tinnitus (chronic ringing or buzzing in the ear), and annoyance.” In fact WHO recommends much lower exposure levels than would be permitted by this noise ordinance. This may be the most critical point of all, since for the City Council in New Orleans not to act in the face of this kind of threat would be a dereliction of their duty.

Fact: Research has established that residential properties which have audible noise on them have a significant diminution in value. The studies show that buyers will pay 25%-30% less for a property if it is effected by unwanted sound pollution.

Ironically, in the small number of clubs that would play live, amplified music above the legal noise limits, the people who’d be most likely to suffer these disabling health effects the musicians themselves. This ordinance will actually help some musicians by controlling and reducing sounds to which they are exposed. They are being forced to work in these dangerous conditions which are far above safe levels, and so their objections, to me, are like uranium miners objecting to stricter radiation exposure standards or coal miners complaining about stricter respiratory coal dust standards.

But the real problem is that this conversation has drifted far away from reality. Opponents to this common-sense measure invoke iconic images of Louis Armstrong blowing his trumpet in Jackson Square, but the reality of noise pollution in the French Quarter and other New Orleans neighborhoods looks nothing at all like that. More typically we’re talking about the owners of out-of-control nuisance bars that aren’t even hiring musicians but blasting canned dance music from giant amps at all hours of morning. I kind of doubt that Louis Armstrong or Mahalia Jackson would want to live next-door to an establishment such as that…no tax-paying homeowner would. Which is why we need to steer the discussion away from emotion and back to reality — a reality that will make New Orleans a better and healthier place for our residents, our visitors…and our musicians.

Once again, I stand solidly with those who would rather hear the NOLA Music, and not the noise!

Read the proposed new noise ordinance for New Orleans (PDF):  http://maccno.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/7Essentials_Draft_Ordinance_12132013.pdf

For news about the proposed noise ordinance before City Council, please check out: http://news.yahoo.com/video/opponents-proposed-orleans-noise-ordinance-041845860.html

To keep informed about the battle for balance in New Orleans, visit the “Hear The Music Stop the Noise” website – and sign our petition: http://hearthenolamusic.org

Please visit and “like” our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/HeartheNolaMusic

You can learn more about the noise assault on New Orleans neighborhoods from the BUKU Festival in my March 20, 2013 post: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/buku-carries-assault-on-neighborhoods-to-new-noisy-level/

To read my Aug. 3, 2012, blog post about noise pollution from New Orleans to New York, please check out: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/from-new-york-to-new-orleans-noise-pollution-terrorizes-the-public/

Check out my Feb. 9, 2012 blog post about New Orleans noise pollution at: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/when-the-party-gets-too-loud-new-orleans-residents-wither-under-noise-pollution

Learn more about the World Health Organization’s warnings about noise pollution and its health effects here: http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/136466/e94888.pdf

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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