The night before the New Orleans City Council was to discuss the controversial noise ordinance at a committee meeting Jan. 17, councilmembers withdrew it and postponed the meeting. This morning, the Housing and Human Needs committee planned to consider a stripped down version of the ordinance, tailored almost exclusively to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street — but that also was tabled. Instead, councilmembers took two hours of public comments — including from members of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO) and the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) — and talked about what's next in the years-long debate over updates to the city's sound ordinance.
District C councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who has driven the redrafting process since she took office in 2010, said the ordinance as introduced last month was meant to gauge public opinion — which was not good, she said with a smile. The draft was "meant to further the conversation" and gather feedback, she said. She added that David Woolworth, the acoustician hired by the City Council to issue a report with recommendations last year, will work with the City Council through 2014. Palmer also addressed other cities' recent, and frequent, adaptations to their noise laws, including updates in Miami and New York, and whether New Orleans would follow their lead. "With all due respect to those cities, neither has the diversity of music New Orleans has," Palmer said.
(The withdrawn draft of the French Quarter-focused ordinance would reduce the maximum sound level to 75 decibels, where they currently are 80, in commercial areas. Bourbon Street's maximum would be 85. It currently is 10 decibels above the ambient level, or 60 decibels, depending on which is higher.)
Palmer also echoed City Council vice-president Stacy Head, who said she is "disheartened by the rhetoric" about the noise ordinance. (Head later added that "the conversation has been co-opted by a very small group of people, using musicians as the shills.”) "There has been a lot of confusion and perceived lack of a process" about its drafting, Palmer said. Head said there are two antagonistic views to the laws that create unnecessary friction: while people fear unenforced quality of life issues as music expands into their neighborhoods, neighborhoods also "reject would could be."
Councilmembers urged that the ordinance isn't about shutting down live music but zeroing in on problem businesses, of which there are only a handful. City Council president Jackie Clarkson, who said she was instrumental in the creation of the House of Blues and Frenchmen Street, said, "We want to kill noise ... and save hearing and music, especially live music."
Councilmembers (and dozens of public speakers) all agreed the city should enforce equally the existing noise ordinance. Others added that City Council shouldn't make new laws without knowing how to enforce the current ones — from proper sound testing to handling violators and complaints. Charlotte Parent, the interim director of the New Orleans Health Department, announced the relaunch of the city's environmental health program, which will focus on enforcing noise violations, thanks to $250,000 in funding from the French Market Corporation. Enforcement will be limited to the French Quarter and will include three "environmental health liaisons."
David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM, said enforcement of the existing laws should begin "before you start teasing out the decibels." He also said the drafting of the ordinance process has been "quirky and murky at best."
"Put together a process that's inclusive and clearly articulated, and follow it," he said.
Head said she hopes to see a draft completed by French Quarter Fest, which is in April. Freedman said, "Urgency shouldn't drive quick decisions."
MACCNO members urged that the drafting process going forward should include one-third citywide residents, one-third musicians and culture bearers, and one-third businesses and tourism representatives.
Meg Lousteau, executive director of VCPORA, said there was "nothing secret" about the ordinance drafting as proposed. Lousteau said Bourbon Street businesses are "creating a straw man of music" on which to blame their excessive noise. Coco Garret, vice president of French Quarter Citizens Inc., and Carole Allen, VCPORA vice president, agreed. "The scofflaw businesses are cranking up the music to the detriment of musicians," Allen said.