Town noise ordinance seeks to put a number on annoyance

(Photo by Nick Henderson)

(Photo by Nick Henderson)

A Town Board workshop showing decibel levels of common sounds also served to demonstrate the limitations of the town’s proposed noise ordinance, the subjectivity of what constitutes an irritating noise level, and the value of neighborliness.

“When something is considered to be annoying, the best thing that we can do is sit down and talk to our neighbors and try to work the problem out, because we can’t enforce annoying sounds,” said Police Chief Joseph Sinagra.

But when that doesn’t work, people call the police. The town currently has no noise ordinance, so police officers can’t cite residents for making a racket on their own property. Until now, it seems the flashing blue lights and armed, uniformed officers asking politely has sufficed in defusing noise complaints, which are numerous (151 so far this year).

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But not on Cherry Lane, where complaints by resident Warren Ferine concerning a Raymond Minew’s garage band 90 Proof, which practices across the street, have led to an impasse, with each side claiming to be in the right — one, that the noise is not excessive and within a homeowner’s rights, the other, that the band is reducing the quality of life in the neighborhood through noise pollution. This situation has been the main contributing factor in the town’s decision to consider adopting its first-ever noise ordinance, which would prohibit sounds greater than 72 db from 7 a.m.–10 p.m. and 66 db from 10 p.m.–7 a.m., as measured at the property line.

Sinagra, accompanied by Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel, Deputy Supervisor Fred Costello, Councilman James Bruno, Councilwoman Leeanne Thornton and a few members of the public, gathered outside the main pavilion at Cantine Field on Nov. 1 and observed demonstrations of common activities including loud music, a leaf blower, a chainsaw, a mower and police siren. One group measured decibels at the source while another measured it a couple hundred feet away to replicate observation at the property line. In all instances, the decibel level exceeded the limit at the source, but fell below the limit at a distance.

Sinagra fired a handgun (with blanks) to demonstrate how wind direction dramatically changes the way sound travels. The sound was considerably louder downwind than upwind. Geographic features also have a lot to do with the way sound travels, explained Sinagra.

“If I’m on a mountain and I have loudspeakers that are blaring the concert music and my complainant lives below the mountain, that sound goes right over my complainant, but the people who live four miles away are hearing it and getting higher decibel readings than the guy that’s directly under the source of noise,” he said.

Raymond Minew’s wife, Angie Minew, was eager to prove it’s not the band that’s the problem.

“I welcome in anyone here, especially Warren, to come Monday nights, which is practice night from 6-8:30 p.m., and take a decibel reading, even from the bottom of my driveway. Even from inside my home. It does not register,” Minew said.

To this Ferine countered: “I would like to invite everybody to my house when they’re playing music, to try to listen to the TV or talk on the phone or read a book inside my home with the windows closed.”

Two days later, that’s just what happened. Helsmoortel, several board members, the chief and a lieutenant, armed with decibel readers, went down to Cherry Lane and told 90 Proof to crank it just like they would in a normal practice.

The results? If the noise ordinance were to pass as written, the band would come in well under the limit — the average measurement was 59 dB at the property line, topping out at 64 dB; inside it was 54 dB with the window open and 47 dB with the window closed. Sinagra described the noise level as audible but not excessive. “Could you hear the music? Sure you could, but it wasn’t loud.”

Clearly, this was not a satisfactory outcome for the complainant. One of two possibilities must be true: that 72 dB is too low, or Ferine is too sensitive.

Sinagra said it was not the former. If the town set the number below 72 dB, Saugertiesians would “go crazy” because many common activities would fall under it. “My opinion is 72 dB is a good number to work with.”

The chief emphasized the need for neighbors to solve such problems among themselves and avoid getting government involved. Even in this case, with both sides dug in, some compromise is possible. During the demonstration, Ferine said the music was not as loud as usual, but Minew said that was a result of repositioning of amps and instruments. Perhaps that partial solution would have been found earlier if both sides had addressed the situation in good faith, suggested Sinagra.

If the town chooses to move forward with its noise ordinance, Sinagra gave assurances it would not be treated as a means for raising revenue. He pointed to the village noise ordinance, which has been in existence for years and not been abused.

Curiously, the village ordinance, according to Sinagra, has no decibel levels, and residents can be cited for any noise that disturbs their neighbors for a given period of time. Such a law would certainly apply were Cherry Lane in the village, which, in its high density layout, it resembles.

Exceptions to any town noise ordinance will be made for large parties or gatherings provided the town is notified well in advance. Some locations, such as firing ranges, would be exempt from the law.

“I am not going to allow my officers to give somebody an appearance ticket simply because a kid went screaming past somebody in the neighborhood and they said ‘oh, they violated the law.’ We’re not going to get involved in the pettiness of a neighbor,” Sinagra said.

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Town Attorney John Greco said a law would make enforcement possible.

“Right now we don’t have a law in place, so if an officer comes over and says, ‘can you turn the music down’ or ‘how much longer is this going to continue,’ there’s nothing to back that up if the person is uncooperative,” Greco said.

“We would advise you that we received a complaint and we’d ask you to comply,” Sinagra said. “We’d even come back a second time and tell you that. The third time we come back, you’re going to get a summons if we have a local law. I want to be able to go to court and demonstrate before a judge that I gave you two opportunities to comply and the third time you snub your nose to me, you’re going to get a summons. That’s the way we would operate as a police department.”