Just How Enforceable Are Noise Ordinance Laws?

Just How Enforceable Are Noise Ordinance Laws?

In a previous post I outlined the problems with stating an SPL limit in terms of a signal number. To review, a dB SPL value is technically meaningless without information about the time-domain (integration time) and frequency-domain (weighting curve) details of the metric. There is a world of a difference between 100 dB Peak C and 100 dB LAeq10. If venue management says “keep it under 100 dB,” we need more information in order to comply. 

Yes, I’m a technical editor, and it’s my job to nitpick this kind of technical language. You will often see loudspeaker manufacturers state a loudspeaker’s sensitivity as “93 dB” when they mean “93 dB SPL / 1W @ 1m.” Sloppy? Yes, but still functional because we know what they mean

This is fundamentally not the case when saying “The limit is 100 dB SPL.” There’s no “reading between the lines” here as to which weighting and integration times are being used – your guess is as good as mine. We can’t even begin to comply,  because we can’t measure it.

With that in mind, I dove into the language of some nearby cities’ noise ordinances to see if they are asking the impossible.

I start with my childhood city of Rome NY. Chapter 26 Article IV of the city code deals with nuisance noise, defined as:

if such sound is loud enough to be clearly heard 25 feet from the source from which the sound is produced or reproduced.

Let’s say “clearly heard” is the level of an average conversation, say 60 dB SPL, from 25 feet as stated. That means that a meter (3.3 ft) from the source, we’re at 77 dB SPL, which is indeed a comfortable level to listen to the radio in your garage – but then again, there’s quite a large difference between A and C weighting in this context, so which are we using? 

One must also consider the ambient noise – if you live on a busy street, for example, one might expect that the radio playing in your garage would have to be a bit louder to be “clearly heard” during rush hour.

Considering we’re talking about a law bearing consequences of fines and jail time (up to 15 days cause you wanted to ROCK!!!), it’s too vague to get a definitive answer.

[T]he volume of sound shall be so controlled that it will not be unreasonably loud, raucous, jarring, distributing or a nuisance to reasonable persons of normal sensitiveness within the area of audibility

We will grant the benefit of the doubt that by “distributing” they mean “disturbing” (or maybe the author had a grudge against 70V systems). There is a serious issue, from a legal perspective, with the phrase “unreasonably loud.”


[…] to use or maintain any outside sound amplifying equipment at sound pressure level limits exceeding the limits provided in subsection 80-56(c)

Okay, we got the term “sound pressure level” in there, so that’s promising, right? Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, subsection 80-56(c) does not exist, spelling an abrupt end for our efforts towards compliance. (If you can find it, please do let me know.)

A look at the wording for Syracuse NY is no more productive:

[…]that produces sound in such a manner as to create unnecessary noise that crosses property boundaries and annoys a person of reasonable sensibilities. (Syracuse Ordinance Section 40-16)

I consider myself a person of reasonable sensibilities and I find this quite annoying at any volume. Your move, Syracuse.

Okay, so far we haven’t even gotten a number. (Reminds me of my college days.) Let’s go for the big guns: NYC.

Straight from the NYC Department of Environmental Protection website we have this PDF. (Retrieved August 29, 2019). Let’s get into the good stuff:

Decibels are a logarithmic unit, which means that a noise measuring 30 decibels is actually two times louder than a noise registering at 20 decibels.

Well… sort of. This highlights another inherent problem: SPL measures pressure, not loudness, and the two are only somewhat correlated, with a host of factors influencing perceived loudness. It’s true-ish that a 10 dB increase often corresponds to a doubling of perceived loudness, but 10 dB is actually a tripling (and change) of SPL.

When designated as “dB(A),” as seen below, the measurement is weighted in the “A” scale to simulate human hearing.

A weighting is designed to more closely match the human hearing response around 40 dB SPL (technically 40 phons). Seeing as all but two of the table’s entries are 70 dBA or higher (including a ridiculous assertion of a “boom box” stereo being 120 dBA), this is not accurate. Sorry, Macaulay.

There exists a regulation on air conditioners:

A single circulating device may not produce noise levels in excess
of 42 decibels, as measured three feet from the noise source at an
open door or window of a nearby residence.

Wait, are we measuring three feet from the noise source, or at the neighbor’s open door? 

To account for the cooling needs of new construction or shifting
building populations, the Noise Code limits buildings with multiple
devices to a cumulative noise level of 45 decibels, as measured per
the above standard.

Ah, so we can have two air conditioners. Got it.

Live near a music venue?

42 decibels as measured from inside nearby residences

Again, this is so vague that, unless it was an extreme case, the metrics could certainly be manipulated to create either desired outcome (too loud, or not too loud) by someone who understood the subject.

7 decibels over the ambient sound level, as measured on a
street or public right-of-way 15 feet or more from the source,
between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am

This one could actually be enforceable, as it’s a true referenced dB (a comparison) and arguably the metric doesn’t matter here as long as it’s unchanged between the two measurements. Of course, an A weighted measurement rolls off so much low end that clearly audible bass won’t even move the needle, so some specificity is needed here for it to be a functional rule. Otherwise the choice of weighting will likely determine the verdict.

Bass sounds measurements are weighted in the “C” scale
and may not exceed 6 dB(C) above the ambient sound if the
ambient sound is greater than 62 dB(C)

Now we have a more appropriate (or at least less inappropriate) weighting, but this muddies the waters when considered alongside the previous two rules, as well as the logistical trouble with making such a determination.

The intent here is not to make fun of New York (we can do that another time) but to highlight how inherently confusing this topic is, and how it is, more often than not, being handled in a way that does not give clear answers to individuals with a vested interest. Considering what’s at stake – fines, legal consequences, and most importantly, human well-being, this makes for a frustrating situation indeed.

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