Watertown’s Noise Ordinance Needs More Work Before Subcommittees Will Approve

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Watertown City Hall

Watertown Town Hall

Two Town Council subcommittees looked at proposed changes to the Town’s Noise Ordinance Monday night, but little progress was made, and the Councilors agreed more work needed to be done.

The committees on Rules & Ordinances and Human Services had met at least three times, dating back to 2017, before Monday. They took up the issue after receiving a variety of complaints about noise in Town. Some came from residents upset by lawn and garden work being done early on weekends, others about amplified music at church services or from Town parks. Others worry about the noise from all the construction occurring around town.

The newest proposal to change the Noise Ordinance included some changes, such as the addition of information on tonal noise (a pure tone, hum or buzz) and amplified sound.

There was discussion about having a limit of 10 decibels above the ambient noise level. Some said this is not enough because in some areas of town, such as Watertown Square, the level is significantly higher than more residential areas, so the noise limit would be allowed to be higher in some areas. Gary Shaw, who sits on the Planning Board but spoke as a resident, suggested having an absolute decibel level which could not be exceeded.

The proposed ordinance also included hours during which certain types of work would be allowed. There were four categories which under the current proposal would be allowed at the following days and times:

1) Construction/demolition and home improvement by a commercial enterprise: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday

2) Loading, unloading, deliveries and trucks idling: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

3) Power equipment used by residents or commercial enterprises such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers and power saws: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

4) Amplified sounds: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

A few residents said they thought the first three categories fit together as commercial activities, but the fourth — amplified sound — did not.

The subcommittees voted unanimously to eliminate category 4 from the list of allowable activities.

There was some confusion about what would happen during those hours. Town Attorney Mark Reich clarified that his legal opinion was that during those hours those activities would not be subject to noise restrictions. This was the opposite of what some of the councilors thought it would mean, said Councilor Tony Palomba.

A number of residents said they want the absolute decibel limit so that these activities don’t go unchecked during the hours in which they are allowed.

Councilor Anthony Donato worried that setting an absolute limit could mean banning certain equipment or activities.

“I understand the concerns but we need to make allowances for everyday life,” Donato said. “If we don’t make allowances we will eliminate all construction activity.”

Councilor Caroline Bays said that the ordinance should not just include a decibel limit.

“We should also look at time because the higher the decibels the shorter time you can endure,” Bays said.

Resident Elodia Thomas said that other communities around Watertown have ordinances which include a chart with acceptable noise levels, duration and the levels vary for different areas of town. She pointed to the City of Somerville as an example.

Heath Director Deborah Rosati said she is concerned with her department being able to enforce the noise ordinance because it only has two inspectors who also are in charge of areas like restaurant inspections, rubbish complaints and swimming pool inspections. She added that other communities have larger inspection staffs.

“We’re not looking for more complicated ordinances we think are unenforcible,” Rosati said. “Somerville seems to have deep pockets at this time.”

Palomba said he does not want the lack of staff to stop efforts to control noise.

“I understand the problem of enforcement, but at the same time it can be self-enforcement, or initial enforcement can lead to (following the rules),” Palomba said.

He added that the Town’s Department of Community Development and Planning also has a Code Enforcement officer who could help.

The subcommittees voted 4-1 to ask the Town staff to come up with more nuanced language for the ordinance to take into account time of day, duration of the noise and what part of town, as well as looking at an absolute limit. Councilor Ken Woodland voted against.

Palomba also suggested cutting back the hours, and suggested not allowing construction or landscaping to begin until 8 a.m. on weekdays. Council President Mark Sideris said that the standard construction day begins at 7 a.m., including for the Watertown Department of Public Works.

Resident Russ Arico said that it is similar for those working in landscaping businesses.

“People who work inside an air conditioned and heated building forget what happens with people who work outside all year round,” Arico said. “In the middle of the day they suffer from heat. It is unreasonable not to allow people to start working at 7 in the morning.”

No vote was taken on changing the hours.

The Town has received a number of complaints from people living near parks, particularly Victory Field, who complained about noise. One of their biggest complaint is amplified music coming from games or people using the park. This includes Town activities.

The proposed ordinance also has a section for exceptions, including one for programs run by the parks and recreation staff, as well as for emergency vehicles, emergency DPW work or work such as snow plowing.

The meeting adjourned before the exceptions could be discussed.

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