Updated, 8:08 a.m.: Copy edits, revised headline
NORWALK, Conn. – Criticisms and suggestions mixed with resounding support Wednesday as Common Council members continued a long-standing effort to rework Norwalk’s noise ordinance.
Village Creek residents lauded the changes drafted by a New Jersey consultant, and suggested adding a requirement for white noise devices on trucks; Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said enforcement would be much easier with the proposed clear guidelines, and SoNo business owners pleaded that they want to get along and be good citizens.
During the lengthy meeting Eric Zwerling, president of The Noise Consultancy, sought to explain via telephone the changes he’d drafted for Norwalk’s noise ordinance after an April visit to hold meetings, take sound measurements and tour with City officials and interested residents Vernon Howard and Diane Lauricella. Zwerling returned in mid-July when the bars were in full swing and measured again.
Zwerling said that he has written noise ordinances for communities all over the United States and the changes he has drafted for Norwalk are an amalgam of ordinances from many other jurisdictions, since Norwalk is unique with many issues. The changes need to be consistent with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) regulations, a “fairly stringent standard” with some problems, he said. He emphasized that the decisions are up to Norwalk and its residents, that he has made suggestions but has no agenda.
The voluminous suggested changes include definitions of “continuous sound,” “extraneous sound,” “plainly audible” and “impulse sound.” Ambient noise would be revised to include cumulative noise; enforcement personnel would not have to stay at the alleged transgressor’s property line but could investigate on the complainant’s property; outdoor noise in a residential zone would be limited to 5 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night, and 35 decibels would be allowed inside at night.
The most fundamental problem, Zwerling said, is that the existing code doesn’t recognize that people live in all of Norwalk’s Zones, and its “greatest failing” is to apply the least restrictive standard. Addressing that was the most difficult challenge, he said. An exemption for construction noise is slated for removal.
Paul Brashi of Village Creek said eliminating that exemption would be great, as sometimes companies have 25-35 vehicles running simultaneously on the other side of the marsh.
Village Creek is in close proximity to industrial areas, with beeping, banging, and dumpsters clanging, and the community is “very happy with the changes proposed,” Teresa Peterson said.
“The ambient noise requirement in there is definitely a good step but white noise backup beepers really help take the load off the community,” Peterson said. She added that construction companies learn the “sweet spot” provided when Norwalk Police change their shift at 6:30 a.m., and they can get away with more noise.
Kulhawik said later in the meeting that the change of shift is an issue that needs to be considered.
“Thank you for trying to tackle the issue of how to set reasonable noise limits in a way that is fair to everyone. We think there is much that is good in the draft ordinance but there’s two suggestions we have on how it should be improved,” Attorney Leonard Braman, representing Our House at 112 Washington St., said. Braman objected to the noise level set for inside neighboring residences and the proposal to limit noise after 10 p.m. on Thursdays.
The draft ordinance correctly recognizes the Washington Street Design District as a unique destination and asset to the City, Braman said. Business owners find some of the proposed limits “somewhat workable” but object to the 35 decibel level limit inside a residence.
“That’s lower than a whisper. So you are setting businesses, bars and restaurants, up to fail by setting a limit on sound that they can’t possibly comply with,” he said. Businesses are penalized for a lack of insulation in the old buildings they are renting space in, Braman added. He suggested a second-floor buffer zone of office or artist space.
The 35-decibel limit would lead to confusion and more noise complaints, not less, Braman said.
“We agree with a lot of the things you guys did,” Isaac Camaro, owner of Our House, said, but he believes 35 decibels is lower than what’s allowed in a library. Four restaurants have opened and closed in the last two years in SoNo, and, “We want to stay but we need to have help from you guys,” he said.
Howard, a Washington Street resident who has complained about noise, disagreed. A noise study done on the previous occupant of the space now used by Our House yielded results at or below what is proposed by Zwerling – and that was on a Saturday night, he said.
Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho said he’s lived in SoNo for two months, in very close proximity to the railroad tracks, and while it was unlivable at first, the installation of soundproof windows inside the regular windows has made all the difference. He suggested incentives to encourage landlords to install them.
“I think that would be fair because these landlords know that they are renting apartments to people who are going to have to coexist with businesses below that are often have music and things like that,” Camacho said.
Windows would be fine but additional soundproofing would require careful attention to make sure that fire sprinklers are still adequate, Fire Marshall Broderick Sawyer said.
“The biggest thing about this is enforcement and making sure our officers have the correct equipment,” Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said. “This Committee pursuing this ordinance actually predates some of the members now… We literally had police officers saying they can’t enforce the ordinance.”
Minority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-District D), Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) and Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) all sought information on the budget to buy equipment and train officers.
The equipment and three-day training class Zwerling has recommended wouldn’t be cost prohibitive, Kulhawik said. Supervisors would likely go out on enforcement and about 20 people would take Zwerling’s course.
Zwerling said that as director of the Rutgers Noise Pollution Training Programs, he has trained 8,000 to 10,000 noise enforcement officers over the course of 29 years.
“This isn’t just a course where I teach an officer how to turn the meter on, calibrate it and turn it off,” he said. “He or she has to know how to take a measurement of the total sound.”
Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) asked Zwerling if he’d taken SoNo sound measurements “anonymously.”
It wouldn’t be hard to notice the non-Millenial out there with sound equipment, and the SoNo business security people are very observant, so “as a result, my guess, they may well have turned down levels to what they thought they could live with,” Zwerling said.
That’s a good thing as “the levels are based upon what they were doing themselves,” he said.
Hempstead complained of a “chicken and the egg” problem, as in, “I had my house built next to chicken farm and it smells.”
Commercial yards have been in South Norwalk “forever and a day,” and, “it’s concerning because you’re effecting either one person’s rights or another person’s rights,” he said. “If you’re a commercial yard and you’re trying to run your business during the normal course of a day, a work day, not being unreasonable… ‘I can’t help that everything I have been doing here for 50 years is noisy.’”
If the City wants to address pre-existing nonconforming uses, that could be written into the code, Zwerling said. He noted that he could research whether there are jurisdictions that have done that but, as an example, in New Jersey there’s a statewide flat-line limit of 65 decibels in the day and 50 at night.
A public hearing on the matter is yet to come; the Committee is accepting written comments, which may be e-mailed to [email protected]