After a slew of failed attempts over the past decade, the Saugerties Town Board is reassessing its ability to establish a noise ordinance. But it won’t be easy — Town Supervisor Fred Costello was quick this week to outline the various pitfalls surrounding such a law.
“It’s not a problem unique to Saugerties, noise ordinances are tricky,” Costello said. “There’s a preference among the legal community and law enforcement that these ordinances don’t use subjective language. Quite often they make references to loud or unreasonable noise, and that kind of language makes legal folks cringe.”
The supervisor echoed many town boards in many places which have come to the conclusion that a stated decibel limit is vital to an enforceable law.
“It’s better when there’s reference to a certain decibel level or a certain type of machinery in order to set a clear boundary,” Costello said, noting that the matter will be discussed at the town’s pre-board meeting set for Wednesday, Nov. 7, after this paper’s deadline. “There’s been quite a ‘loud’ discussion in trying to come up with what kind of ordinance would be suitable for the Town of Saugerties. Right now, there’s interest amongst the town board to adopt a noise ordinance that resembles the one that the village has. The current discussion is about whether we can develop and adopt a law like that — we don’t know that it can be extended town-wide.”
Part of that issue may be that the village’s ordinance, as Costello pointed out, foregoes setting specific decibel levels in favor of vague terms like “unreasonable,” “disturbing,” “excessive” and “offensive.” This puts responsibility for deciding upon and reporting noise violations on the residents rather than police.
Without a formal ordinance in place, enforcement of noise violations becomes a difficult subject, due to the very subjectivity of the violation itself.
“When the laws are not a clear violation, if it’s based on a subjective law, the police department will handle and file the complaint, but the complainant is the one who has to bring the case before the court,” said Costello. “The case then needs to stand on its own merit before a judge. If the law is decibel-based, however, then the police department can make the accusation and provide concrete support — it would be the police department making the charge, and not the neighbor.”
According to town police chief Joseph Sinagra, an ordinance has to take into consideration many different conditions — location, volume, distance and a slew of other variables make enforcing such legislation a potential nightmare. If an ordinance specifically and numerically limits the volume of noise allowed, it also tends to have the opposite problem: legitimizing any noise that falls just short of the violation.
“Here’s the problem with measuring decibel levels,” said Sinagra. “Where does the noise level get measured? From inside the complainant’s home? From the edge of the complainant’s property? If you’re going to implement an ordinance that measures decibels, the board has to be concerned with where the reading is taken from.”
Sinagra noted that merely adding decibel meters to officers’ utility belts didn’t automatically solve the problem. “What’s really interesting is, a couple years back, we went out and got several decibel meters,” the chief said. “We were going and taking readings during a complaint about a local band’s practice noise. Not once did we get a reading that was considered detrimental to one’s hearing.”
These readings were taken by Sinagra in 2014, a report in this newspaper stated at the time, after a local resident amassed 165 signatures in favor of an ordinance after she found a local band in her community too raucous. Their reading was well below the cut-off in the six-page ordinance they had drafted, and the experiment precluded the document from making it into law.
Councilman Mike MacIssac is gung-ho for the concept. “I am interested in having a noise ordinance. Both Woodstock and Hurley passed noise ordinances this year, largely based on the ordinance in the Village of Saugerties,” he said. “What I’ve learned in my last year as a legislator is that you have to have a noise ordinance. … If your neighbors are blasting music at 2 a.m., the police can show up, and if there’s a law on the books it’s a lot easier to enforce. People are much more willing to comply when the officer has an ordinance to point to.”
Costello thinks, however, that the climate has changed since the board’s last attempt to establish an ordinance, in part due to Airbnb and part-time rental properties in the area. “People will rent a short-term rental, and have 15 or 20 people over to celebrate an event. I would argue that’s the driver in this instance. Short-term vacation rentals and parties are impacting neighborhoods in a way that’s unique now that hasn’t been happening before. Come spring there’s no reason to believe that we won’t have a similar experience. If we do nothing for 2019 we’re going to have the same people impacted last year impacted this year.”
Sinagra said that in the final analysis, reducing noise-related unhappiness is more a case of neighbors cooperating rather than police intervening.
“These laws were put into place years ago to prevent things like heavy equipment use during sleeping hours,” the chief said. “But, we never take into account the person who mows their lawn at 2 o’clock in the afternoon when they’re living next door to someone who works overnight. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is neighbors understanding their neighbors, and working with one another to create the environment and quality of life that they expect.”