After raising concerns about the standard used and the enforceability of the ordinance, Evanston City Council members have bounced back to committee a colleague’s proposal to place a decibel limit on loud music or amplified sounds.
Council members voted 7-1 at the April 25 City Council meeting to send the proposed ordinance changes back to the council’s Human Services Committee for further review.
Human Services Committee members had voted April 4 in support of Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle’s proposal to extend to 750 feet the required distance between the source of certain sounds and private property lines. The current required distance from property lines for music and amplified sound from loudspeakers, paging systems and the like is 150 feet.
Under the proposal, sound coming from those systems could be no louder than 55 decibels from the property line of the premises from which the sound was being generated.
Revelle had proposed the changes after fielding complaints from residents of the Seventh Ward who cited the disruptive effect of noise coming from American Legion Post 42 at 1030 Central St., which hosts live music events in its patio area during the summer.
One resident, asking for limits, compared the effect to having a “jam session” take place next to one’s house “four or five days a week.”
Another speaker who lives on the other side of town asked officials to place limits on amplified noises coming from the athletic fields at the Robert Crown Community Center.
She stressed that residents welcome the activities but needed “a break” at times.
Under the proposed changes, fines for violations would range from $50 for a first offense to as much as $500 for multiple violations that occur within one year of the first offense.
The restrictions do not apply to individuals or groups that have obtained a Special Event permit for events such as charity walks or the Starlight Concert Series, for example, that require approval by the City Council.
55-decibel limit questioned
In discussion at the April 25 meeting, though, one speaker and a number of council members expressed concerns about the proposed changes, several taking issue with the 55-decibel level limit.
“If I were to shut off my [microphone] and talk like this,” said Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, “I’m speaking at about 55 decibels, and to say that noise level at 750 feet is unacceptable, I find it hard to fully grasp, particularly if we’re making an exemption for institutions like Northwestern, like [the music venue] SPACE.”
The 750-foot distance requirement “is a fairly arbitrary marker … that just so happens to be the distance from Post 42 to the closest neighbors,” he observed.
He said he would like council members to take more time with the issue and suggested a demonstration from staff on how the 55-decibel limit would be enforced.
Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said he would also like to see a demonstration, saying he did not have faith that a low-cost decibel reader could “filter out 10 different noises all happening at the same time” to get an accurate reading.
Noise effects can be relative
Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, said her main issue with the changes was their effect on the community.
“I just feel like this is going to undermine bringing community together. I think it’s so important to encourage people to talk to each other,” she said.
She recalled that in her first or second week as a council member she received a call from constituents who live on the lakefront “because there was some live music on the parkway across the street at Dawes Park.”
She said she talked to the families where the music was originating about the neighbors’ concerns and they agreed to turn the volume down a bit.
The incident “was a little awkward for me,” said Kelly, “but that was far more preferable than having someone call police.”
“To go over with a decibel stick, find these families,” she said, continuing her example, “I just think there’s another way we can approach this, and I’m very concerned this is going to lead to unnecessary policing.”
Council Member Juan Geracaris, 9th Ward, noted that through the proposed ordinance, “we’re trying to quantify something,” using a decibel reader to put a number on it.
“But it’s hard to quantify how annoying something is to somebody. I can think of examples that really, really grate on my nerves. But my wife thinks they’re awesome, and vice versa.
“Something that a neighbor is doing, just talk to them,” he advised. “That’s the first line of defense.”
Revelle said, “As I’ve been learning over the past year and a half, the way sound travels and diminishes as it travels is very complicated.”
For instance, sound from a loudspeaker emitted at 75 decibels would diminish to 55 decibels if someone was standing 750 feet away, she said.
And, she said, “talking specifically about 75 decibels,” that is the maximum noise level that Post 42 said they would maintain “from the back end of the crowd” at events when applying for a special event permit in 2020.
“So they were already committing to that 75-decibel level in 2020,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it was very difficult for them to continue to really maintain that decibel level. From the residents’ point of view it was too loud.”
Reid spoke of decibel levels associated with various devices and how reliable a standard that would be in this case.
“If you’re listening to music in your living room at a reasonable level, that’s about 76 decibels,” he said, “and so to say that a speaker that’s outside playing music for people in a large field is going to be at the same sound level as your indoor speaker in your living room … I don’t know.”
“I think this council wants to find a solution,” he said. He said an arbitrary solution, though, could create greater problems.
He and other council members voted 7-1 to send the issue back to the Human Services Committee meeting. Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, cast the lone ‘No’ vote.