Noise Ordinance

by Eldridge V.

Last Reviewed: June 14, 2024

Visitor Question: We are thinking about having a noise ordinance, because we are tired of boom boxes, marital arguments that take place outdoors, people mowing their lawn at 7 a.m., and other things. What advice does anyone have?

From the editors: Usually a noise ordinance has two aspects: (1) a maximum decibel (dB) level acceptable, and (2) a where and when aspect. By this we mean the maximum decibels may be lower at night than during mid-day. Or they might be lower in residential zoning districts than commercial. Thus the "when" and "where."

Read up on the decibel levels that different machines and people noises cause. That's easy to find on the Internet. Then decide if a loud lawn mower is too loud on a Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m., say. What level would be acceptable?

Keep in mind what we might call ambient sound. For instance if you live near an airport or major highway, you have more or less constant noise, although lower in the middle of the night. If you have many trains, planes and trucks, a court might consider it less reasonable to ban boom boxes at all times of day or evening.

Then think about enforcement. Do you police really have time to run around chasing some teenager with a boom box?

Most noise ordinance are enforced only through complaint, and it's fairly likely that the perpetrators are willing to take a risk if they're that insensitive to others in the first place.

Another factor is that many noisy situations are fairly temporary. By the time you call the police and they are able to respond, that boombox almost certainly will have moved on, unless it's in a park or at a party.

The argument probably will have taken itself indoors or ceased. The lawn mowing may be complete. The party may have calmed down or drifted back indoors.

We're actually in favor of noise ordinances, because they cover extreme situations. They are especially appropriate for repeat party-givers, frequent industrial noise level violators near residential districts, or people who want to gear up the chain saw at sunrise day after day when doing a project.

The reason we started off a bit negative was that these are among the toughest ordinances to enforce. If you can maintain civility, dialogue with the offender beats calling the police. This is especially true if the noise-maker is a business or a place of worship.

If individuals are causing you to want a noise ordinance, a letter from a block unit or neighborhood association may be a good approach.

A letter is a little safer than a face-to-face confrontation.

Be aware that the noise ordinance often is part of the zoning ordinance, as land use zoning is the most common method of governing "where" activities can take place, at least in American cities.

So do check whether your current zoning ordinance addresses noise, as many do. If not, you may decide to pursue the noise ordinance idea. Many municipalities have one, and they certainly can be helpful in some situations--especially when there is a recurring pattern of noise.

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