Time for New Orleans to take the next step on environmental noise pollution, but the solution to noise pollution in New Orleans is not increasing noise

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Here’s one thing everyone can agree on: This Monday was a good day for democracy in the city of New Orleans. For three years now, City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer has been looking at the intertwined issues of noise pollution, city laws and enforcement. She’s been trying to find common ground for residents who want to live free from unwanted assaults on their eardrums and those eager to preserve the great music traditions of the Crescent City. In seeking the praiseworthy goal of consensus, she persuaded the Council to commission an outside expert to study the problem, and then on Monday there was an open City Council committee hearing marked by free and frank discussion. The noise pollution issue in New Orleans is about to be addressed.

The report – prepared by consultant and rock musician David Woolworth of Mississippi-based Oxford Consultants — clearly establishes that noise pollution in New Orleans is a significant public health issue, and it accurately describes the physical and mental effects of exposure to noise pollution. These effects include memory loss, stress, heart attacks, hypertension, and cognitive impairment in children. The report states that, “The health effects due to noise are real and can be substantial.”

It also accurately describes the negative economic impact associated with unregulated sound pollution on historic preservation and property values. The report notes a significant decline in rental or sale value of 20-50% for properties affected by noise. Noise pollution also impacts the ability to preserve historic buildings, and therefore our historic preservation efforts which are critical to maintaining New Orleans as a world class tourist destination.

We support approaching the issue as a matter of protecting the environment, public health, historic preservation, and property values.

Therefore we urge the City Council and Mayor to explain the citizens of New Orleans why we have no noise enforcement or noise enforcement funding when our neighborhoods are presented with the dangerous effects of noise pollution. Despite repeated requests from neighborhoods across the city neither the council or administration  have acted to ensure funding for an effective enforcement program. The Woolworth report along with the persistence of the neighborhood noise coalition deserves some budgetary action.

It is for these reasons that we wholeheartedly support Mr. Woolworth’s call for the immediate establishment of a professional noise enforcement program within the Department of Health, and the creation of a quality of life section within Municipal Court. But regrettably, the Woolworth report falls well short of what we had hoped for. I want to re-state that we are grateful to all who are looking into this problem, as opposed to simply accepting the status quo.

However, we cannot back Woolworth’s proposed wholesale revision of our current noise ordinance, which was enacted after much public debate by concerned citizens in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the rest of the report truly exceeds its bounds in recommending sweeping and mostly unnecessary changes to the existing noise statute. Many of his proposed changes are biased in favor of those creating the noise –bars — and in too many cases actually expand the ability to bombard streets and neighborhoods with excessive decibels.

We also cannot support changes which, according to board-certified experts, will allow increased noise pollution in the City and which calls for enforcing the ordinance with warnings and a slap on the wrist.

When there is too little enforcement and too much tolerance of noise that harms our health and property values in any impacted neighborhood, that adds nothing to the city’s cultural environment. This is not any sort of attack on New Orleans’ fantastic live-music traditions, or the many good people who work in that industry. I grew up in New Orleans going every weekend to such iconic clubs as Jimmy’s, Jed’s, Checkpoint Charlie’s, Tipitina’s and House of Blues, etc. I was the director of entertainment of the entire LSU Baton Rouge campus for two years. I produced dozens of free concerts during this time period. My music loving credentials are impeccable.

But the situation has deteriorated in the years since Hurricane Katrina — there is too little enforcement and too much tolerance of venues that add nothing to the city’s cultural environment but way too many decibels to the thick Louisiana air, and of itinerant noisemakers who raise a ruckus underneath homes in the dead of night.

Members of HeartheNOLAMusic.org also asked its board-certified noise expert, Arno Bommer of Houston’s CSTI Acoustics, to review the lengthy Woolworth study and identify short-comings. We were concerned about the objectivity of Woolworth, a part-time rock musician who has done consulting and expert-witness work for loud bars in New Orleans at the same time he was doing his noise study for the city, and we wanted a second opinion from a truly independent voice.

You can — and should — read the entire response here, as well as the powerpoint presentation Bommer gave at the meeting (here). Pay particular attention to Mr. Bommer’s unimpeachable qualifications which establish that he has no conflicts of interest, and has worked for some of the largest corporations in the world after graduating from MIT. He is the real deal and anyone who supports the Woolworth plan over Boomer’s must be supporting the agenda of the bars. We know what happened to the last local politician who supported bars over people. A guess: It was not Shelly Midura and his name is an essential part of baseball.

Bommer presented  a detailed and very technical response before the Council committee; he said the main  weaknesses in Woolworth’s report  are that it would increase the allowable decibel limits throughout the city and is permeated with the attitude that some responsibility for the noise problem in New Orleans falls upon the victim and not the perpetrator.

In one remarkable quote from the paper’s appendix, the lengthy Woolworth report actually states: ” If you have a problem with bass frequencies, consider changing the end of the bed you sleep on….Consider moving the sleeping area to another part of the building…Always consider, and as much as possible respect, the degree to which someone (the sound-maker) is personally invested in their sound.”

The city’s enforcement focus needs to be on the noisemakers and not telling people to move their bedroom into the kitchen or dining room. Sound proofing by noisemakers would be a practicable and equitable solution.

Other objections raised in the Bommer review included highly technical changes in the ways that noise is measured and violations are determined.  The most obvious proof of why the Woolworth recommendations are biased and a sham are the requirement for a daily warning prior to the issuance of a citation. In other words, a bar can break the law every day and face no citation on that day unless — and until — a warning had been issued to them on that day. If a bar is warned on a Thursday, it can start blasting again on Friday and face no consequences until they are warned again. This is the issuance of a get-out-of-jail card free every day and would almost guarantee that no one is ever actually cited. This is the proverbial slap on the wrist.

A lot of effort was obviously put into producing this report, but the sad reality is that the Woolworth report is infected by bias in favor of the noisemaking bars at every turn. That’s not shocking — remember the author is, in addition to his expertise in acoustics, a member of a performing rock band, after all. I wish we had all known that before he was hired with public money.

It’s time to enforce the law, properly fund a noise control program, and fix the parts of the Noise Control Ordinance that needs fixing. A lot of promises have been made on these issues by our elected representatives in the past. Let’s see if these promises are fulfilled in the near future.

Check out coverage of Monday’s hearing from NOLA.com at: http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/08/new_report_on_noise_ordinance.html#incart_river_default

Here is the response to the Woolworth report by consultant Arno Bommer: http://noisenola.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/arno-bommer-new-orleans-noise-ordinance-issues/

The Arno Bommer Powerpoint presentation is in this blog post: http://noisenola.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/recommendations-for-new-orleans-noise-ordinance-and-peer-review-of-woolworth-report/

Read a list of the “Seven Essential Items” on noise pollution supported by New Orleans neighborhood groups: http://www.themarketingcenter.com/noise/

Read coverage of the report from the Advocate: http://theadvocate.com/news/6766858-123/new-report-suggests-enforcement-changes

Read about the residents’ proposals to control noise pollution in New Orleans at: http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/06/neighborhood_coalition_demands.html#incart_flyout_news

Read about the city’s 2012 nuisance bar enforcement in Hollygrove at: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=gmail&attid=0.1&thid=13f5da1ddfd34eab&mt=application/pdf&url=https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?ui%3D2%26ik%3Dc510b69e4c%26view%3Datt%26th%3D13f5da1ddfd34eab%26attid%3D0.1%26disp%3Dsafe%26zw&sig=AHIEtbT9uokBd_zZ0splFEs90HTlcYcpYQ

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 read my April 17 blog post about the city’s failure to enforce noise laws at: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/city-of-new-orleans-breakdown-in-enforcing-noise-laws-is-an-assault-on-civil-society/

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/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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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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