The New Orleans City Council will host a special Housing and Human Needs Committee hearing at noon Friday (Jan. 17) to discuss the city's latest proposed noise ordinance before the measure heads to the full council for a vote. Strange as it may seem for a piece of legislation that has been in the works — and widely discussed — for years, this feels a bit rushed.
A bit of history: Just before Christmas — while New Orleanians were concentrating on the holidays, the upcoming municipal elections and the New Orleans Saints — the City Council introduced a proposed new noise ordinance, the first in decades. Oddly, the latest revision ignored the advice of David Woolworth of Oxford Acoustics, a professional acoustician hired by outgoing District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer to study the issue and create recommendations for the legislation. Woolworth submitted his report in August 2013, offering recommendations to update the city's noise ordinance, including raising the current decibel limit; streamlining the noise complaint process (with sound officers and a dedicated hotline); as well as changing noise ordinance violations from criminal to civic violations, an eminently sensible plan.
Two months before the Oxford Acoustics report was received, a coalition led by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) released its own recommendations, including "seven essential items" for a citywide ordinance. The VCPORA recommendations included lowering the maximum allowed decibel level in the French Quarter's commercial areas to 75, from its current 80. VCPORA has cited a wide variety of neighborhood groups from around the city that support its recommendations.
Last month, the City Council largely adopted VCPORA's recommendation in its draft and tossed out Oxford Acoustics' recommendations, which it had requested (and paid for). What's odd is that local musicians and music fans — who had come together in opposition to changing the ordinance — had, to some extent, supported the Oxford Acoustics plan. (VCPORA says its plan doesn't differ from Oxford Acoustics' plan to any great degree.) The existing ordinance as well as the proposed revision contains special provisions for nightlife areas in District C, which encompasses the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny, home to many of the city's music clubs and street musicians.
A group called the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) formed in 2012 in the wake of permit inspections and ensuing music venue closures. The noise ordinance redrafting process became one of MaCCNO's major goals. The coalition has hosted several community discussions — some with city officials, like Mayor Mitch Landrieu's adviser to the cultural economy, Scott Hutcheson — to discuss what should be included in the ordinance. The discussions also gave musicians and club owners a voice in crafting an ordinance that will directly affect their livelihoods and the vitality of the city's tourism industry. (VCPORA and the neighborhood groups have not held public forums, according to Nathan Chapman, a past president of VCPORA and a proponent of the new ordinance.)
Those opposed to the current draft of the ordinance claim their objections have not been heard, and they point to the dismissal of the Oxford Acoustics report as proof. Those in favor of the latest proposal say their intent — and the proposed ordinance itself — has been largely misunderstood as a "war on music." They add that the maximum decibel levels proposed in the ordinance are in line with those imposed by other cities. Moreover, they say, the ordinance is aimed at negligent club owners, not musicians. Chapman told Gambit last week that a good number of musicians agree with the latest draft (jazz clarinetist and French Quarter resident Tim Laughlin has expressed his support).
One item that does make sense is measuring sound from a fixed point outside a club rather than from a complainant's front porch or living room. The ordinance calls for a property-line measurement, but a reasonable distance from the club makes more sense. This would allow for regular and fair checks on noise levels and take the onus off residents who might feel intimidated to file a complaint. As to appropriate decibel levels, that's up to the City Council, but they're meaningless if they're not enforced uniformly, with an eye toward prevention rather than purely responding to complaints.
At this point, the pro- and anti-ordinance factions haven't talked to one another, which is a problem. Friday's council meeting will be a good chance to air differences and answer questions. What's most important is that the City Council works fully with the music and cultural community as well as neighborhood associations before taking a vote on this important ordinance.