Updated, 8:38 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Common Council members wrestled with noise issues Wednesday as they worked to craft a new noise ordinance.
“It’s up to you if you want to set such an unreasonably stringent standard for bars and restaurants and make it more difficult for businesses to open up in South Norwalk and to continue to be in business in South Norwalk,” Attorney Leonard Braman said to the Council Ordinance Committee. Braman spoke on behalf of Our House, a bar at 112 Washington St. “I think that it’s really incumbent on this Committee to try to reach a solution that is good for not only residents but also for businesses.”
The proposed daytime sound level decibels for Washington Street “are not draconian as has been inferred or outright stated,” noise consultant Eric Zwerling said, addressing the Committee by telephone. The Committee has hired Zwerling, president of The Noise Consultancy, to help draft the ordinance.
The Council has been working for nearly two years to address noise issues.
“The hard part of this ordinance, it seems to me, is this Washington Street development district… The rest of it is something we can come to an agreement relatively quickly on,” Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.
Council member Colin Hosten (D-At Large) pointed out that the other issue is residential areas located near industrial zones, such as Village Creek, where he lives.
“It’s tricky, because you want to respect the residents, you want to respect the people doing their business, and I think it’s sometimes hard to find a balance,” Hosten said. “But… the ordinance as it currently exists does none of that so I think it’s worth having a discussion to try and figure it out.”
About 10 people attended the special meeting, including some Washington Street business owners and South Norwalk residents. Diane Lauricella spoke on behalf of South Norwalk Citizens for Justice.
“Some folks say that anyone who rents above these bars and restaurants, they should have known what they signed up for. Well, I dismiss that on the grounds that because we didn’t have a very good noise ordinance before now that I think if there is some incentive set up by this committee to think about noise attenuation, for those that are currently in the first-floor tenancy, we can allow grandfathered noise hazards,” Lauricella said.
She also advocated that the Committee “make sure we have very well laid out discussion about who is the noise control administrator and what type of training either the administrator or those who help the administrator receive.”
The proposal to require a maximum 35 decibels inside the home of a Washington Street resident at night is “setting up businesses on Washington Street to fail,” Braman said, arguing that a soft whisper 5 feet away is 40 decibels and HVAC equipment on apartment buildings is 50 decibels.
Livingston asked about measuring noise, and Zwerling explained in painstaking detail the need to determine ambient noise so as not to hold business owners responsible for noise they’re not creating.
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) asked if it would be possible to create levels of zones for background noise, so the noise levels could be factored in without elaborate measuring.
That would be ill-advised, Zwerling said. “The baseline ambient varies tremendously, from day to day, from season to season, circumstance to circumstance,” depending on things like the state of traffic, the number of pedestrians that are about or the state of the road, if it’s dry or wet, he explained.
“To try to get measurements that would capture every single scenario, would be lunatically expensive,” he said.
Sound levels outside a building might not necessarily correlate to sound levels in an apartment over a bar. “It could be in compliance outside and not necessarily in compliance outside,” he said. Zwerling took readings on a Friday night in April and again in late July, finding that the noise level in an apartment over Our House was 37 to 47 decibels in April and in July it was 41 to 47 decibels.
That means that a daytime allowance of 45 decibels inside an apartment is “right there,” as it would “allow almost all of the activity that I measured on a Friday night in April and on a Saturday night in July,” he said.
Livingston asked about the sound level of a whisper.
“If you were sitting at 1 o’clock in your bedroom and you had two people sitting at the foot of your bed whispering, would that interfere with your ability to sleep?” Zwerling asked. “EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) research shows that people tend to start waking up when noise exceeds 35 decibels.”
“I think that the (proposed) levels are fair,” he said. “I think that however it’s not for me to make the determination of what the jurisdictional level is for the City of Norwalk. That’s for this Committee to determine.”
Zwerling had mentioned Hoboken, N.J., and Livingston asked what their inside levels are.
“The Hoboken ABC has a different approach to this entirely…. If they get enough complaints about a facility, they don’t really tell whether you’re in compliance or not. They start pursuing you,” Zwerling said.
If SoNo businesses are concerned, they can do a calibration event, metering the levels in their facility to determine what’s acceptable and installing equipment to monitor the situation as an evening wears on, he said.
“I do that all the time,” he said. “Then the facility knows they are comfortable, the person upstairs knows they are relatively comfortable and everybody goes on with their lives.”
The changes proposed need to be consistent with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) regulations, Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said, and there’s a limit on the fines that can be issued.
It’s possible to penalize multiple offenders by taking away their health permit, and this would get around the state, Hempstead replied.
Ambient noise is important because it’s not fair to the businesses to have that included in their measurements, Melendez said.
“I think as a Committee we have to have this conversation about … the importance of this,” she said. “This is just one of many noise issues in the city. But this is particularly important because it’s this mixed use zone and as our city grows and as we kind of promote these mixed use zones, and we have residents and commercial establishments together, we have to have respect for both. Or else we as a city should not do mixed use zones if we cannot do both.”
When the Committee first started working on the issue, “I had a committee that was just throwing out numbers… we really knew nothing,” she said. “At least we have someone here that knows more than we know.”
She set a public hearing date of Feb. 19.
Having an ordinance doesn’t mean there won’t be complaints, Hosten said.
“I like that there’s more defined mechanism for enforcement but it’s not necessarily simplifying things even for the people who were affected, or for the businesses,” he said.
Melendez said she’s been in SoNo when the police were called for noise and she observed the officer asking why people call about noise. SoNo residents patronize those establishments, she said.
“It’s about working together not in spite of each other,” she said, looking at audience members. “That’s really what it really comes down to but we have to have our enforcers also understand that and honestly our whole community. Where I live, noise is not an issue… but there are bigger issues.”