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Striking sweet tone with noise rules will be a big challenge for county

By Dan Pool, Editor

When I work, I like background music, something with no vocals (makes writing difficult) and not so loud it hampers concentration or discussion. Several years ago, we had an employee who had visceral reactions to both classical and jazz.

This staff member was sent into fits by both Coltrane and Bach and maybe that isn’t unusual. According to a recent article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, the root of the word noise ties it to both nuisance and nausea.

The article explores why defining noise isn’t easy. As Ross explained in What is Noise? “‘Unwanted sound,’ is the basic definition [of noise]. An act of aggression is implied: someone is exercising power by projecting sound into your space.”

Our commissioners unenthusiastically peeled back a lid on the challenges of defining and regulating sound at their most recent work session. Chair Kris Stancil explained that a citizen has presented sample codes to restrict hours at home gun ranges to restore some peace and quiet to nearby homes. And they owe it to the citizen to at least look at it.

As the commissioners all went to lengths to affirm, this isn’t any type of Second Amendment issue, it’s about unwanted sounds bothering the neighbors. They said any type of ordinance would apply equally whether it’s a home shooting range or a hobby sawmill or a homeowner whose brass band comes over for day long practice sessions.

This ordinance will pit opposing property rights issues against each other: The right of one household to engage in a noisy activity as much as they desire versus that of nearby homeowners to enjoy the serenity of the country. Regardless of the type of sound, there is the implied “aggression” of the definition above, one party is reveling in their rights and diminishing the right to the solitude of their neighbors.

The issue of gun range sounds had already been broached when a club gun range of Jones Mountain sought to expand. Nearby residents cried foul over the war zone cacophony ringing through the area many weekends. And others added a tangible argument that being near something which is often loud, whether an airport or a factory, hampers the sales potential of those properties.

The commissioners’ duty of looking into this is not one we would envy. 

One of the challenges they may find is if they wish to proceed with any noise ordinance, enforcement is not simple. Again citing the New Yorker article, measuring accurate sound levels is tough, there are all types of variables including distance from the source, topography, tone (high-pitched sounds are more annoying even at lower volumes) and if frequency/time of day becomes a factor in enforcement, someone has to respond immediately as you can’t figure out the next day how loud something was the night before. The article noted that in 2022, more than 50,000 sound complaints were made in New York but the city only imposed fines in 123 cases.

The ideal solution of course would be to not involve the government at all. Let neighbors come to some reasonable compromise – “go ahead and rock it out on Saturday afternoons and we’ll have peace and quiet on Sundays,” types of deals sealed with a hand-shake.

Barring that, in a quickly growing county approaching a population of 35,000, establishing common sense guidelines on noise will be no simple tune.

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