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After Legal Setback, City Council Prepares New Noise Ordinance

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Ask yourself: How loud is 65 decibels? As the handful of public officials who are shaping the next version of the noise ordinance found out last week, it's about as loud as a conversation held in a crowded restaurant. Or in this specific case, as loud as a discussion held in a quiet, third-floor conference room of City Hall.

Like the last, unconstitutional version, the latest draft of the proposed noise ordinance bars city residents from creating sounds that exceed 65 decibels, or what's plainly audible in another person's residence, between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. The overnight decibel cap — 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. — is 55 decibels.

At the Wednesday meeting of the noise ordinance work group, Tracy Thorne-Begland of the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office pulled out his smart phone to measure the loudness of the discussion. Its decibel meter hovered at 65.

“That's scary,” deadpanned City Councilman Bruce Tyler.

“But do you want to hear that level of noise in your bedroom while you're trying to sleep?” asks Charles Samuels, the ordinance's chief sponsor.

A Richmond judge ruled the last version of the noise ordinance unconstitutional in late November. Police issued 125 citations before city officials decided not to challenge the judge's ruling.

Barring some additional tweaks to the language of the most recent working draft, Samuels says the ordinance might soon be ready for introduction to City Council.

But even as the process nears completion, discussion continues on the inclusion of a “plainly audible” standard in the language of the law. That particular clause has been challenged in other localities, Thorne-Begland says.

“It's certainly defensible,” he told the group. “But it's a question of do we want to give someone something to hang their hat on in a legal challenge.”

After the meeting, Samuels, the ordinance's chief sponsor, declined to comment.

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