OP-ED: The Truth About the Proposed Noise Ordinance

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The Truth about the Noise Ordinance

I read Councilor Woodland’s Op-Ed of March 18th on the proposed Noise Ordinance with dismay. It was filled with misleading claims and fear mongering tactics. I feel it is necessary to clear up some misconceptions. 

In order to make his points Councilor Woodland left out key elements of the ordinance which alter the meaning of several quotes that he chose to share. For instance, he asserts that the “proposed ordinance caps permissible noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in residential areas (more than 10 minutes long) between 55-60 dbA (depending on duration)” and since conversation is 60 dbA it would outlaw talking. However he neglects to mention that the dbA at the source is not relevant. The 55-60 dbA is actually the limit of “the sound level when measured on any other property.” He claimed that he and his wife could not enjoy dinner on their deck, but since sound rapidly dissipates and since decks are required to be at least 10 feet or more from the property line, a conversation would measure well under the 55 decibel limit at the nearest property line. Councilor Woodland can continue to have those dinners on his deck with his wife without fear of violating this noise ordinance. In fact everyone in town can continue to enjoy socializing outside. As long as you are not blaring music or yelling and screaming it is unlikely you will be close enough to the property line to go over the 55 or 60 decibel limit.

In addition Woodland’s op-ed states that normal lawn and power equipment would be illegal to operate. Again this is a misreading of the ordinance. The ordinance says these tools “shall not exceed 80 dbA, as measured at a distance of fifty (50) feet from the source.” (italics added) Most lawn mowers are about 90 dbA. But that is at the source, which is irrelevant to the ordinance. What is relevant is the decibel level 50 feet away from the source. Since sound decreases according to the inverse square law, a 90 decibel lawn mower falls well within the allowable range at 50 feet away. The only tools that would not comply are incredibly loud tools, often used during large construction projects where different rules apply. So, contrary to Woodland’s claim, your lawn mowers and hedge trimmers will still be legal.

As for leaf blowers, Councilor Woodland states that the sound from leaf blowers is not a problem because officials do not get complaints — but officials do not get complaints because leaf blowers are not illegal. There is no point in calling to complain if the noise is allowed under the law, so it is disingenuous to imply there is not a problem just because officials do not receive calls. Instead, many constituents have called and emailed me about how dreadful the leaf blower noise is in their neighborhood and how it is detrimentally affecting their quality of life.

Councilor Woodland also never mentioned that there are exceptions listed in the noise ordinance. Many people have written to me as a result of his op-ed concerned that concerts, parades, football games, etc, would be illegal under this ordinance. But all of these activities are listed as exceptions to the ordinance. So all of the special events and public activities will still be allowed and legal.

My colleague’s op-ed would have you believe that, if this ordinance passed, life as we know it would end in Watertown, but that is simply untrue. This noise ordinance simply codifies which noises are allowed and at what levels. The allowable levels are well within the norms of every day activity and will not change any normal routines. They are comparable to the sound levels other nearby communities have adopted in their ordinances. 

What it does provide is a recourse for those whose lives are made miserable by extreme noise. This noise ordinance would replace a vague unenforceable ordinance with clear limits and provide the town with the tools we need to ensure we can enforce identifiable violations and harassment of neighbors. It will protect each of us and it will serve as a guide to help us all be good neighbors to our friends next door.

I hope you can attend the meeting on Tuesday, March 30 at 6:00 and urge Councilors to vote for this noise ordinance.

Caroline Bay
Town Councilor

(Click here for info on how to tune in and participate in the meeting)

29 thoughts on “OP-ED: The Truth About the Proposed Noise Ordinance

  1. We have lived in a fairly divisive political landscape over the past few years (locally, nationally, etc.) so I want residents to know that I sincerely appreciate Councilor Bays responding to my Op-Ed and, although both articles seem harsh, I think it’s worth noting that though passions may rise with particular issues, Councilors remain in mutual respect and admiration for each other and the position we hold and in doing so serve as stewards of our democratic traditions.

    With that being said there are a few things worth noting. My house, like thousands in town, was built prior to the zoning code and has many non-conforming features that have been grandfathered in to be permissible today. So folks should know that my porch, like many in town, is literally on the property line (where the noise measurement would take place). As such, I am 100% correct in saying that having a conversation on my deck would violate the noise ordinance as the measurement would come from right beside my deck and voices carry about 65 dbA (which is above the proposed level). So interesting to use this analysis as an argument that the ordinance is reasonable. If the ordinance passes as written this is what residents should look forward to when seeing if their outdoor activity is permissible…what zone are you making the noise in, what time of day is it, how long has the noise been made, how far is your deck from the property line to measure the noise, etc.

    Councilor Bays next point presumes you are in the 80 dba timeframe with your mower/leaf blower and not the reduced 65 dba for certain times of the day. Despite that, we will have to agree to disagree that someone measuring a moving lawn mower on a 3,000-5,000 square foot lot will come in at less than the amount set.

    And to clarify, the lack of complaints wasn’t just about leaf blowers…it was about all landscaping noise. And nuisance noise was still not permissible under the old ordinance which also had time limitation violations. So there was no time when these complaints couldn’t be made.

    And your exceptions are only exceptions for events w/ an official license or permit. If I had a pick up football game at Bemis Park it would not fall into the noise exception. Kids playing and yelling in the street would not fall into an exception.

    In your haste to defend the proposed ordinance you seem to have, inadvertently I am sure, presented some misleading counterclaims yourself. No matter how you look at it, this ordinance is outrageously overbroad and will unfortunately criminalize everyday mundane activities as I asserted in my op-ed.

    Mentioning other cities ordinances is interesting too…some had to hire additional staff to deal with the increase in response…is that where we want our resources going? When Newton banned leaf blowers there were something like 320 complaints in 6 months…with 15 people accounting for 42% of the calls…not exactly the simple codification of noise and fair proof of the fact that some people will use these wide ranging provisions in an inappropriate way. And that is “The Truth about the Noise Ordinance.”

  2. Clearly, both proponents and opponents of any new Ordinance clearly have the right to express their opinion. However, for Councilor Bays to accuse Councilor Woodland of “misleading claims and fearmongering tactics” is nothing more than political rhetoric, at best. In line with the proverb “don’t throw rocks if you live in a glass house”, Councilor Bay has also chosen to leave out key points that don’t support her argument. For example, she states that the average lawn mower creates approx. 90 decibels (dba) of noise but while the new ordinance would require compliance at 80 dba she implies that our lawnmowers “probably” would not violate the noise ordinance as measured from 50 feet away. However, she doesn’t make any statements about leaf blowers being ‘probably ok’ because its doubtful that any gas-powered leaf blower could meet the new 65dba threshold. As such, I am forced to conclude that Councilor Bay would prefer that you all go out and buy a new electric lawnmower and/or leaf blower and then place your old ones in the recycle dumpster. What other equipment does this new ordinance essentially ban?
    What Councilor Woodland’s Op-Ed did was create incentive for people to read what is a very complicated proposed ordinance. I question how many people had previously read the proposed ordinance, never mind understood the decibel levels or that the proposed ordinance will not only include landscape equipment like leaf blowers, lawn mowers and trimmers but also includes sections pertaining to air conditioners, alarms, animals & birds, any single bell, chime, siren whistle, engine exhaust, explosives, fireworks, firearms, defective vehicles, loud speakers, radios, televisions, musical instruments, shouting, yelling & hooting, street sales, vehicle repairs and vibration. Am I the only one that finds “BIRD NOISE” to be a bit excessive in legislation? And heaven forbid your dog barks too much because that apparently is included in the proposed ordinance, too!
    Councilor Bays states that the proposed ordinance will not change life in Watertown as we know it. Interesting way to look at a Nine (9) Page Ordinance that is written so overly broad that it will be all but unenforceable the minute it goes into effect. This begs the question of who will enforce the new ordinance? Isn’t it contradictory to lobby for less police involvement and more law enforcement? Therefore, assuming this isn’t going to be a police matter, in addition to asking the average resident to shell out funds to replace their noisy gas-powered equipment with new electric equipment, I presume the Town will need to hire new enforcement personnel to drive around with noise meters in hand to settle disputes. (ie. issue tickets?)
    Perhaps my biggest problem with this whole ordinance is an expectation by the proponents that the average resident without an advance degree in audiology would be able to decipher or understand how many decibels are allowed based on their proposed noise level charts (See: Sec 95.06 Noise Standards, Table 1). As such, I am forced to conclude that this is yet another attempt to place more Government literally in my back yard by telling me what I can and can not do in Watertown. The reality is that there is a law called “Disturbing the Peace” which should provide ample recourse for residents who experience noise related issues that as the Councilor Bays writes are causing “lives to be made miserable”. (Talk about mis-leading and fear mongering tactics?) In addition, I find it completely contradictory and condescending for Councilor Bays, or any politician, to write that a noise ordinance “will serve as a guide to help us all be good neighbors.”
    Ironically, I have lived in Watertown my entire life and have never driven through Town thinking to myself that this is a much too loud of a place to live. The fact that our friends in Cambridge have a noise ordinance also does not change my opinion. THE TRUTH IS THAT NO ONE HAS ADDRESSED THE POTENTIAL ECONOMIC IMPACT TO RESIDENTS AND BUSINESS. For the reasons stated herein I can not support the proposed Noise Ordinance and urge the full Town Council to reject it at Tuesday Night’s meeting.
    Thank you Councilor Woodland for shining a light on this issue.

  3. Every home on my street is built on a 40’x100’ lot. This ordinance would not allow me to mow my own lawn with the lawnmower that I currently own. There are very many small undersized house lots in Watertown. That is part of the reason we have over 35,000 people crammed into living in less than 3 square miles. Who would have the resources to investigate the many complaints this ordinance would stimulate?

  4. Counselor woodland has done a great service to this town by highlighting this ridiculous proposal.
    The vocal minority should not have their way on this. An overwhelming number of residents think this is wrong for Watertown, I hope they attend the meeting on the 30th and voice their opinion.
    Also think about voting out those who would entertain such foolishness.
    I bet the police just can’t wait to enforce this for the 20 people who don’t seem to be able to get along with anyone without having some ordinance to refer to.

    Would my power generator violate this code if I lose electricity ? It sure would.
    If it’s in the winter my pipes would freeze. Just another example of how rediculous this is.

    • This proposed ordinance is more unnecessary micromanagement of citizens, that people like Caroline Bays, believes are her subjects.

      I can understand having some restrictions before a certain hour in morning and after a a certain time at night. Anything else is just Government overreach.

      Councilor Woodland and I have not always agreed. But he’s right on the money on this issue.

      • Obviously John, this ordinance is the work of subversive Bolsheviks. How dare they try to protect the quiet enjoyment of Watertown property owners! Thank you for your diligence in calling to our attention this un-American attack on our God given liberty to make as much noise as we darn well please.

        Myself, I find the sound of a gas powered leaf blower soothing, like the voice of Pavarotti. A wood chipper is music to my ears, like the cello of Yo Yo Ma. Bring it on! A veritable orchestra of noise making contraptions while we are trying to work remotely at home!

        Honestly, this has been one of the stupidest and most overwrought debates that I have witnessed in my twelve years of living in Watertown. Good gracious! Are we no better than children on the playground? Seems like the answer is no.

      • We already have a noise ordinance in place. Before 7:00 am and after 10:00 pm. If it’s to be enforced I believe the police are responsible to respond. I though all the new Watertown busy bodies wanted less police?

  5. Thank you Councilor Bays for writing this rebuttal to Councilor Woodland’s fear-mongering op-ed. I was at many of the meetings discussing this ordinance. All the councilors contributed, except for Councilor Woodland, who was just against any changes at all. He didn’t show up to one of the meetings I was at, and most of the time made disparaging remarks about the discussion. While I think that Councilor Woodland is a smart and sometimes effective Councilor, I was disappointed in his performance during these meetings, as I am disappointed at his attempt to sabotage a decent attempt at updating this ordinance.
    There is no reason why lawn equipment can’t be quieter. As these laws become more prevalent and more people recognize the deleterious effects of loud noise, we may get more options of better designed equipment in the future.

  6. You would think that with everything going on these days, the Councilors would have better things to deal with. I know the police have better things to do. Foolish.

  7. I think Caroline Bays response to Kenneth Woodland Op-ed was measured and informative. It is quite obvious that while Mr. Woodland talks about having respect it is also quite apparent that he doesn’t show it in his writing he would would be better served to have control of his anger. It’s OK to disagree with the proposed ordnance but what is Kenneth Woodland constructive proposal to address the issues Caroline Bay’s is addressing? Kenneth Woodland’s issue about his deck is addressed in the ordnance because he is non conforming. Well I mean his deck is non conforming .
    It is apparent Mr. Woodland is deliberately misrepresenting the issue when he brings up his deck, playing in the street, public events etc. and in doing so he is unfortunately cast doubt on his own integrity. It reads a bit like it’s personal.

  8. Guess we’re now living in the age of restrictions on all of our freedoms. Apparently Watertown citizens can’t judge for themselves when noises are low, medium, high. We now have to be told cause nanny state or in this case nanny town knows best! God help us all.

  9. Interesting debate. I live on a a very quiet street in town. The only noise issue I have is with the overly large apartment complex built behind us. I get the pleasure of listening to the garbage trucks backing up at 6:30 am, the residents and their dogs talking and barking as late as midnight and as early as 5:30 am outside my window. If we are talking noise, let’s talk about the impact of development on our residential neighborhoods.

  10. One simple question. How in the wide world of sports do some of these people become town councilors? If only more residents who actually have lived here all of their lives just voted, we would not have to put up with such idiocy!

  11. Watertown is definitely becoming another Cambridge which restricts and controls so many things there. People need to be free to go about their daily activities as needed without an alarm clock with them. We don’t need the government telling us constantly what we can and can’t do, which seems to be the goal not only in town but in the country as well. People need to be responsible for their own behavior and respect their neighbors, but in our congested neighborhoods, which the town approves and encourages, that is sometimes difficult to do 100% of the day. I see this proposal creating many more problems than we need. Some people have great neighbors while others may have the neighbor from hell who seems to have a complaint about everyone else. This will only contribute to complaints from that type of individual. We need the police to concentrate on the many other crimes that are happening in town and not these trivial matters. If people no longer have the patience to allow neighbors to use the various pieces of outside equipment within a reasonable period of time, we are not going to achieve the TOLERANCE that is so readily expounded by government and other public officials. Snitching on neighbors to the brown shirts in Germany didn’t have a very good outcome, did it?

  12. Thank you Councilor Woodland for your Op-Ed. This ordinance is completely unnecessary. We are fortunate to have you as our District Councilor and I agree with your position one hundred percent. Thank you for being a voice of reason.

  13. The way some people are hyperventilating over health concerns and decibel levels you’d swear that they were living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone along with a death metal festival going day and night.

    To those folks, I have some news for you. In case you might not realize it, we happen to live in a densely populated urban environment. These kind of “dreadful” petty annoyances come with the territory… get used to it.

  14. The proposed noise ordinance is very much needed. It isn’t even as restrictive as some of our neighbors’ noise ordinances, like Newton or Somerville. These other places have not suffered economically at all for their noise ordinances, far from it, and any construction or landscape company either based there or working there simply complies with the local noise ordinances. Nor have any neighborhoods there broken out in warfare. There’s no reason not to bring Watertown just a little closer to prevailing standards by updating the ridiculously outdated ordinance now on the books. There is every reason to vote this new ordinance in. Thank you, Councilor Bays, for a level-headed summary of the proposed ordinance.

  15. How about this….. town of watertown trimming a private tree!!! This happened just last week on Copeland St with the dpw superintendents approval/request. !!!

  16. Over 3 years to update a noise ordinance says quite a bit about some on the committee’s unwillingness to compromise, perhaps upgrade to a baseline ordinance everyone can live with, and revisit when electric equipment matches what gas powered can do? You know, like we’re seeing with cars perhaps?

    But no, instead proponents presented an ordinance that looks more like a policy paper written by a Think Tank on K Street in DC. And now, instead of back to the drawing board, you blame Kenny Woodland, accusing him of being mean and uncooperative! Lovely.

    The facts are the facts. When you strip away the rhetoric and nonsensical semantics, this document makes a gas powered leaf blower illegal. Or, as one Councilor explained, “No, there’s NO BAN, only “non compliant” “if the decibel level is above the allowable levels in the ordinance”.

    So, I can use in my yard, until I can’t, as when I get to close to my property line, and someone on the sidewalk is subjected to noise above the allowable decibels, I’m violating this ordinance.

    I find this type of double talk unconscionable, disingenuous and an insult to most people’s intelligence.

    • I agree with your overall sentiment, but Ken’s letter was also very disingenuous and I was quite disappointed in his letter. I understand the frustration on both ‘sides’ of this ordinance. The councilors need to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get less noise looking out 5-7 years . Electric is there for many lawn mowers, I now have one and this is my first( I’m very happy with) though would not want to force someone to get one at this juncture. For commercial I think the power maybe lacking(though maybe good enough for our small plots in Watertown)? I would ask that they write up their priorities and work together to get something that works for Watertown(ie not everyone will be happy) and possibly a phased in for electric as it comes more prevalent or replacement of equipment comes up. This way people can plan. Noise may not be everyones problem but there were plenty of folks at the meetings where noise is a issue. We want to live in Watertown with our neighbors and thrive not just survive.

  17. Excessive, intrusive noise is bad for our health. A clear ordinance giving Watertown citizens adequate protection from the harmful effects of excessive noise is long overdue.

  18. This is a joke, I’d be willing to bet there has never been a ticket issued for a loud motorcycle with illegal pipes in Watertown. I hope someone can prove me wrong.

  19. Having had some experience with sound levels in the entertainment business, I can assure everyone that decibel levels are never measured at the source. The gas powered leaf blowers in my neighborhood are an pestilence in the extreme.

    I do not understand the hysteria and exaggeration surrounding this ordinance. It is totally irrational. Councillor Bays explanation seems far more credible than Councillor Woodland’s letter.

    Even with the ordinance, one would hope that no one would complain without good reason and that the police would use discretion in enforcement. That said, there is a reason that so many of us suffer hearing loss later in life and it is not only due to rock concerts. The level of noise in daily life has steadily increased over decades. It makes sense to have limits.

  20. Thank you, Councilor Bays.

    No one is looking to ban people dining on their porch. We are looking for some relief from hours on end of leaf blowers and the thump of amplified bass. Noise is bad for public health. This is a scientific fact.

  21. Cambridge limits leaf blowers to several weeks in the Spring (Spring clean up) and October-November in the Fall. (When there are actual, ya know, leaves). This seems like common sense.

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