Noise ordinance divides musicians, neighbors

Frank Peterson, a 7th Ward resident, explained that when someone chooses to live in a residential neighborhood, they usually take the word “residential” to really mean something.

“It’s where working people come home in the evening to relax, to pause, to get away from the commercial world,” Peterson said, addressing the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee as it weighs the policy implications of a new scientific study on the New Orleans “soundscape,” which examines the effectiveness of the city’s regulations on music clubs and bars.

Recently, Peterson continued, his neighborhood and others around the city have been coping with an “invasion of new venues, of different sites that have commercial interests” — of noise, in other words.

Then Craig Klein took the microphone. A tall, rangy, long-haired trombone player for the Storyville Stompers, Klein began by quoting the journalist Hunter S. Thompson: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, it’s a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs — there’s also a negative side.”

And the negative side, Klein said, “is when a brass band is shut down in the 6th Ward or Treme for doing a second-line at night, celebrating the life of one of the musicians that died.”

Here on display were the full range of interests and sensibilities the council will have to balance as it prepares to revise the city’s nearly half-a-century-old noise ordinance.

It’s not clear yet what changes are coming or when; Monday’s committee meeting was only a discussion. But the council does now have a set of concrete proposals from acoustics engineer David Woolworth, who delivered an 87-page report to council members last week, analyzing decibel levels and suggesting tweaks to the existing rules.

Among other steps, Woolworth is recommending that City Hall hire a full-time “sound officer” to keep noise levels in check. He would move code enforcement from the New Orleans Police Department to the health department, arguing that police officers are too distracted with other priorities, and suggests a dedicated hotline for taking noise complaints, separate from 311 or 911.

He also floated the idea of a separate cap for sound levels on Bourbon Street, curbing the “irresponsible” use of amplifiers and steps to address the “low frequency” bass sounds that do the most to disturb neighbors.

Whatever the council eventually adopts, it will be a long time in the making. Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer has been refereeing a citywide debate on regulations governing sound levels for the better part of two years.

In the spring of 2012, the council took a modest step in the direction of peace and quiet, ordering businesses in the French Quarter and the Central Business District to move speakers away from open doors and windows. Woolworth’s report signals that council members are ready to move ahead with broader changes to the rules governing sound.

That prospect brought a strong showing from the city’s musicians and residents who live in neighborhoods where they perform, though without revealing any clear divisions over specific proposals.

Both musicians and neighbors praised Woolworth’s report for bringing real data to the discussion, instead of random anecdotes. And they thanked Palmer for keeping the process open, rather than drawing up new rules behind the scenes.

Still, they brought competing priorities to keep in mind. Ron Rona, the managing director at Preservation Hall, asked council members to remember that the next Trombone Shorty may be getting his start now as a street musician, and shouldn’t be fined for doing it.

“These guys and gals playing out in the street, it’s a big part of the cycle and their education,” he said. “A lot of players at Preservation Hall, that’s how they got their start and they still play out there.”

Hannah Kreiger-Benson, spokeswoman for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, warned council members that the livelihood of musicians is often “collateral damage in trying to deal with real issues, such as people’s inability to sleep.”

On the other hand, Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association, pointed out that excessive noise is nearly impossible for residents to deal with on their own. “There’s almost nothing you can do to block it out, short of building a bunker,” she said.

With that in mind, a coalition of neighborhood groups released a competing set of proposals for tightening the city’s noise rules on Monday. It included some tougher steps than what Woolworth put forward, including a push to lift or eliminate caps on fines for noncompliance.

And of course, in trying to cut noise pollution without hurting New Orleans’ cultural scene, the council will have ambiguous choices to make about what actually constitutes “pollution” versus “culture.”

“Quite frankly, Bourbon Street is an assault on all five senses,” said Tim Laughlin, a jazz musician who lives in the French Quarter. He argued that back in the 1960s, “there was a mystique about the French Quarter. What was behind the walls? What was behind the shutters? We’ve lost that mystique. Everything is in your face.”

Robert Watters, of the Bourbon Business Alliance, disagreed. “Bourbon Street works,” he said. “Bourbon Street is a cultural draw of this city, and 85 percent of all visitors visit Bourbon Street. They wouldn’t do that if it was evil.”