A sound plan to protect eardrums, peace and quiet — and music — in New Orleans


There’s a welcome new sound in New Orleans — the sound of citizens banding together to fight for positive change, to make America’s most colorful city a better place to live, and to visit. In recent months, I’ve told you frequently about a kind of pollution here that doesn’t get its due: Noise pollution. The problem — I must once again reiterate — is not the city’s iconic, long-established music venues. But the city’s aural assault intensified in the years after Katrina as attracting younger and rowdier tourists became not a bug but a feature of New Orleans’ economic comeback strategy; the offenders are typically unappealing nuisance bars or itinerant late-night bucksters with an amp and a tip jar, parked under
some family’s bedroom window, blasting the neighborhood without regard to anyone else.

There’s been a perfect storm of factors that have hampered City Hall from doing much about the problem — underfunded or indifferent code enforcement, failure to update or strengthen the existing laws, but mainly a lack of political will. That’s why it is so encouraging to see so many citizen groups — groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye on the tough issues — join together with a plan for a solution:

A coalition of 13 neighborhood groups released a seven-point proposal Monday designed to strengthen enforcement of New Orleans’ noise ordinance. The plan includes the levying of unlimited fines, closing or limiting the hours of noncompliant businesses, lowering accepted noise levels in the French Quarter and creating a full-time position in city government that would deal exclusively with complaints about loud music.

It’s a plan that I wholeheartedly endorse — here are some of the specifics:

–Establishments that offer live entertainment or amplified sound must take reasonable measures to ensure compliance with the requirements of the noise ordinance. Such measures would include, but are not limited to, developing and implementing a sound control program and documenting and keeping records of all sound level measurements.

–A full-time person with the authority and full backing of the New Orleans Police Department and the city Health Department should be appointed to enforce the ordinances. This person should also establish and maintain a publicly accessible centralized record-keeping system to track complaints, enforcement and compliance efforts.

–All sound measurements should be taken at the property line of the sound’s source as opposed to the current standard of 25 feet from the [sound’s] source.

–In order to deter repeat offenses, the state should pass legislation that allows higher or unlimited fines. In the absence of this legislation, other deterrents should be considered including limiting operating hours or shutting down non-compliant businesses.

–Significant revisions to the mayoralty permitting process, which grants approval for live entertainment, should be made to ensure advance public notification and opportunities for public comment.

–Accepted decibel levels in the French Quarter should be returned to 1989 levels so that the maximum level in residential areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. is 70 decibels, compared to the current level of 80. In commercial areas, the decibel level would be lowered to a maximum of 75 from 80.

–A maximum decibel level of 85 would be enforced in the popular eight-block stretch of Bourbon Street. The current ordinance puts the ceiling at 10 decibels above the ambient noise level or 60, whichever is higher.

These are common sense measures — reasonable, not draconian, improving the quality of life in New Orleans for residents and for tourists visiting the French Quarter while actually helping the vast majority of live musicians who will play in venues that follow the law. Unfortunately, there are still those on the other side of the debate who have no interest in sensible solutions, who continue to play to emotion and hysteria and insist that curbing noise pollution is a restriction on free speech.

For example the mayor’s father really cared about noise pollution and enforcing the law. In response to a complaint by the musicians union about sound enforcement, the then-mayor Moon Landrieu said: “These incidents were of a purely competitive nature and according to a good number of musicians in the Quarter, the eighty-five decibels allowed by the City’s ordinance do give them all the necessary freedom to perform.
We can assure you that the rights of all musicians performing in the French Quarter are being protected and only those moved by commercial purposes rather than artistic ones, are being asked to comply with the ordinance.”

Indeed, the American court system, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court, has found again and again and again that reasonable civic limits on noise pollution serve do the common good, and do not violate anyone’s right to free speech, as long as the law addresses the decibels and the hour of the speech, and not the content of what is being said.

In New Orleans, laws regulating the playing of musical instruments on city sidewalks have been on the books since the 1800s. In a case known as Ward v. Rock Against Racism, the Supreme Court ruled that local governments have an interest in protecting residents against excessively loud noise, as long as: 1) the restrictions are content-neutral; 2) they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and 3) they leave open ample alternative channels of communication.

These simple standards have been upheld by the courts many times — and they are the cornerstone of our plan for making New Orleans a better place. No one is trying to stop anyone’s political speech, as ex-mayor Moon Landrieu recognized we are  talking about commercial speech which does not require the same constitutional protection.

They say that good government is good politics, and just  last year there were encouraging signs that current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was listening to the community, that he gets it. In May 2012, he announced that the city’s Alcohol Beverege Control Board had yanked the license of a nuisance bar in the Hollygrove section of the city that was the source of noise complaints as well as litter and numerous acts of violence, More importantly, the mayor said this would be part of a stepped-up effort against nuisance bars citywide, and that was very good news. Unfortunately, the crackdown seems to have fizzled.

The truth is simple: Reasonable limits on noise that protect not just the public welfare but good health aren’t just permissible, but highly desirable.

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: https://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: https://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: https://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: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/when-the-party-gets-too-loud-new-orleans-residents-wither-under-noise-pollution

© 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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