Norwalk Council studies noise issue

Common Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E), left; Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), right. (File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk would be ahead of Connecticut’s curve if Common Council move ahead with their current thinking on a target-specific noise ordinance.

The Council Ordinance Committee is beginning its discussion next month with the thought of limiting noise from SoNo commercial establishments to 45 decibels at night, and redefining what is considered “night.” This was the recommendation they got from Charles Shamoon, Assistant Counsel at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, but not standard procedure in Connecticut.

It’s not difficult or expensive for commercial establishments to limit the noise going upstairs or out to the sidewalk, said Shamoon, speaking to the Committee over the telephone.

It’s also important to make the fines tough enough to stop businesses from making life tough on the neighbors, instead of just paying the fine as the cost of doing business, Shamoon said.

Problem with that is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) limits fines in Connecticut to $250. Shamoon mentioned fines in the thousands of dollars.

To that end, Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) speculated that perhaps restrictions could be worked into the liquor licenses or tied to the blight ordinance, so a violation is investigated by the blight officer. Hempstead pushed the Committee to hire a consultant to help revise the ordinance in a comprehensive way, relatively quickly. Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) agreed that it was a good idea.

Stamford’s noise ordinance.

Information provided to the Committee, in the meeting’s packet, show that it’s common in Connecticut vary the allowed decibel level with the time of day, and according to the Zone of the person or company creating the noise.

Noise ordinances in CT

But Shamoon said it’s 45 decibels around the clock in New York City.

That’s the level necessary to allow people to sleep, a standard set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said.

Norwalk’s current noise ordinance limits an emitter in a commercial zone to send 62 decibels into an industrial zone, 55 decibels into a commercial zone, and 55 decibels in a residential zone during the day and 45 decibels at night.

“At first glance at the city’s noise ordinance you would think that the max noise level after 8 p.m. would be 45dB(A), but because our unit is located in a mixed use zone the ‘least restrictive’ guideline is used which is 62 dB(A) and that level is currently allowed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t know if know what 62dB(A) sounds like, but it’s ridiculously loud for a place that someone would call their home,” SoNo resident Vernon Howard said in a recent letter to the editor.

The move to consider changing that comes from SoNo residents, like Howard, and developer Tom Rich, owner of The Pearl, a new apartment building on Washington Street, and developer of a Residence Inn Marriott being built next to the Norwalk Police headquarters.

Rich, sitting in the audience, said, “The difference between 45 (decibels) and 60 is not 15 percent. It’s incremental.”

“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,” the New York City Environmental Protection Agency said in a pamphlet about its noise ordinance.

NYC noise_code_guide

You can compare 65 decibels to standing 300 feet from heavy traffic, and 60 decibels to a large office building with people going in and out, Shamoon said.

An excerpt from the noise ordinance guide:

Sound levels vary depending on one’s distance from the noise source. Below are some frequently heard sounds and their approximate  decibel levels at common distances from the noise source. When designated as “dB(A),” as seen below, the measurement is weighted in the “A” scale to simulate human hearing.

Whisper ………………………………………………….  30 dB(A)

Normal Conversation/Laughter ………………….  50 – 65 dB(A)

Vacuum Cleaner at 10 feet ……………………….. 70 dB(A)

Washing Machine/Dishwasher ………………….. 78 dB(A)

Midtown Manhattan Traffic Noise ……………… 70 – 85 dB(A)

Motorcycle  …………………………………………….. 88 dB(A)

Lawnmower  …………………………………………… 85 – 90 dB(A)

Train ……………………………………………………… 100 dB(A)

Jackhammer/Power Saw …………………………. 110 dB(A)

Thunderclap ……………………………………………  120 dB(A)

Stereo/Boom Box  …………………………………… 110 – 120 dB(A)

Nearby Jet Takeoff …………………………………..  130 dB(A)

But it’s complicated, as there’s an issue with frequencies, as well, he said.

Another excerpt:

Commercial establishments that play music must limit the level of unreasonable or disturbing noise that escapes into the streets or is heard in nearby residences by requiring that sounds levels may not exceed:

  • 42 decibels as measured from inside nearby residences, AND
  • 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 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Sometimes residents are disturbed by pervasive bass sounds that resonate and can be felt physically by a person.

  • 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).


Getting the noise level down to 45 decibels is easily done by suspending speakers with flexible wires rather than having them attached to the wall, Shamoon said.

A professional suspension system is the number one issue, with the second concern being sound absorbing materials, Shamoon said.

A consultant would use a noise limiter, with an assistant going upstairs or outside to report back on the level of noise so adjustments can be made, he said.

“Sleep deprived people are not happy people. The purpose of government is the pursuit of happiness and really when you create a nuisance that enters somebody else’s premises it is really troubling, not acceptable under the law,” said Shamoon.

A Connecticut acoustical expert could give estimates on how much it would cost a business to lower their noise level.

It’s only one or two Washington Street businesses creating problems, residents say.

“Population is going up so all your industrial areas are going to become mixed use one way or another so you have to establish guidelines,” Shamoon said. “…Everything is going to be mixed use as the population goes up so you have to use the latest technology.”

Livingston asked about contractor’s yards in residential areas.

New York City has a catchall phrase in its ordinance for “unreasonable noise,” Shamoon said.

Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) zeroed in on the technicality, asking about Norwalk’s problem with industrial zones abutting residential zones.

“That’s a difficult one,” Shamoon said. “Notice, around all construction we have 12-foot plywood barriers.”

Noise doesn’t pass through plywood and this cuts down the noise enormously, he said.

Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large), who is not on the Committee, asked if New York City allowed a grace period when it enacted its new noise ordinance in 2005.

“We knew it would take some time for them to make the necessary adjustments,” Shamoon said, explaining that it took effect in two years.

Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn also told the Committee that speakers should hang off the walls.

The old construction on Washington Street is an issue, with concrete and tin ceilings being a factor in noise. Nightclubs are no longer permitted but a few are grandfathered in, he said.

It’s against the Zoning regulations to have the door open, and there’s a complaint in process, he said. But it’s a time consuming process and you can’t immediately issue a fine, but have to build a case.

The legal department needs to look into the feasibility of changing the rules on people who already have permits, Committee members said.

Bonenfant said he attended to because he lives back to back with Westport Avenue. An air conditioning unit next door, while not exceeding 60 decibels, is very annoying because of its constant low hum, he said.

New York City has a passage about 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.

“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.

“Qualified inspectors may need to take several readings before enforcement can be deemed necessary.”

“This is a quality of life issue that I have heard over and over,” Bonenfant said. “People who live by the hospital have problems.”


17 responses to “Norwalk Council studies noise issue”

  1. Bruce Kimmel

    Two points to put this in context:

    1. HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, all of the European Union, and NYC, all view noise as a basic health issue and have concluded that noise levels in residential units should never exceed 45 decibels. Norwalk’s ordinance allows for a decibel level within these areas, in mixed used buildings, to go as high as 62 decibels. That is a health hazard.

    2. According to what we were told, it is not costly for businesses to take the steps necessary to reduce the amount of noise that “escapes” their establishments. Moreover, it is not the responsibility of the Common Council to help businesses comply with local ordinances. It is the role of the Council, however, to adopt a timeline to allow businesses to conform to the commonly accepted decibel standards, assuming we adopt those standards.

  2. Adolph Neaderland

    Mr.Kimmel is only partially correct – it is possible to minimize sound transferred from source, however, depending on the construction involved, could be somewhat expensive.

    Mr. Kimmel doesn’t get to the root of the problem, namely the minimal building standards approved by our agencies, completely neglecting the issues involved with “noise” in mixed use projects.

    If our building standards were designed to minimize noise transferred from club sources, proper ceiling and wall standards,
    with double paned (different pane thickness for each pane), noise from below and from the outside could be materially minimized.

    The secret is “Plan Ahead” and create the standards that cope with the use.

  3. Donna

    NYC may be the standard bearer for noise control. But bear in mind the reality of implementing the new noise ordinances in the city. In 2016, the city approved nearly 60,000 applications for variances. About 99% of all variance applications were granted. Commercial music establishments are permitted to exceed the new, lower decibel limits IF the establishments pre-existed the new ordinance, and they apply for a variance. In other words, the old limits are grandfathered in. Why would this not also be the case in Norwalk? Unless of course the goal is to kill nightlife on Washington Street and drive these businesses out of town.

  4. Vernon

    The point that’s being missed here is that a business can mitigate their noise issues if they want too by using noise limiters and sound proofing. They can play their music as loud as they want IN THEIR SPACE as long as they are able to keep the noise that escapes their property boundaries at or below 45dB(a). It’s really that simple. They just don’t want to spend the money to do it. They will however spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000 in order to hire a company to perform a noise study. A noise study performed on a Friday night when the volume is suspiciously and coincidentally much lower than it usually is just so they can get their city operating permit. What a joke.

    It’s also not going to kill the nightlife on Washington St. That’s just fear mongering. If anything the opposite will happen. Businesses will be able to compete and operate here on an even playing field with each other, not one or two blasting music into the streets driving people away. I’ve had quite a few people tell me they don’t like coming down here at night becasue of how loud it can be. Maybe the noise is actually driving potential business away as well.

    It all really comes down to a health & safety issue. If Norwalk does not want to protect the health and safety of the residents that live above and around these establishments, then it should not have allowed residential units here in the first place. Maybe the city should offer to purchase these units from the owners at fair market value if they want to “grandfather” these establishments in. Neglecting the health and safety of just a selection of the city population should not be an option.

  5. Vernon

    @Donna. Variances are granted for construction noise hours and are not permanent in NYC. No variances were granted; or businesses grandfathered in for playing loud music. The city gave them two years to comply. That was it.

  6. Donna

    @Vernon, there is a variance application for businesses that pre-existed the revised noise ordinance.

    Meanwhile, read this article from January 2017, ten years after NYC updated its noise ordinance.


  7. Vernon

    @Donna – You’re correct, there is an application. That does not mean any were any granted. I would suspect any that were, were the exception and not the rule. They would have to prove undue hardship and those conditions are onerous to meet.

    I’ve read that NYT article before and nothing in it helps to back up your claim. If anything it helps to prove that unit owners are probably renting their units out below the average rental rate for the area because of a bar that is breaking the law…

    “If the apartment wasn’t above the bar it would have been $200 to $300 more, depending on the time of the year it rented,”

    So it’s apparently okay with you that real estate investors lose out on collecting $200-$300 more a month in rent just becasue a bar is breaking the law.

  8. Donna

    @Vernon you missed most of the point of the article, and missed completely my reason for posting it. Ten years out, enforcement is still a problem. Tenants were told to pursue relief through their landlords or to hire counsel. Are you okay with a change in Norwalk’s code that still would force you to hire counsel in order to enforce noise abatement? In your case, pursuing a landlord isn’t an option.

    Can you cite specific numbers of variances applied for by commerical establishments and NOT granted? You suspect not many were granted. Where is your evidence? The city issued nearly 60,000 variances, and while most were for construction, at the end of the day what’s the difference? Noise is noise, right? Norwalk does not enforce the existing code. What makes anyone think they’ll enforce a more restrictive code?

    In your case one of the points of the article that you clearly missed is theme of “buyer beware”. It’s commendable that you’re interested in the greater good and perceive noise as a threat to public health. However, your problem as I understand it is that you bought a condo over a nightclub, and now that you’ve experienced overnight hours in that location, you realize that noise from the nightclub is a problem for you and your sleep is disturbed. A change in the code won’t do anything to teach buyers to do their due diligence before they buy residential units over nightclubs in the only nightclub district in town.

  9. Donna

    @Vernon, if someone is breaking the law, the law needs to be enforced. The line between weak enforcement and loss of rental income is not as direct as you draw it. In my opinion, it’s okay for rent to be a reflection of many factors that exist both inside and outside the unit–size and location of unit, condition of unit, whether it’s a fourth floor walkup or a building with elevators and a doorman, etc.–including but not limited to noise. My daughter’s new apartment in Brooklyn is half a block away from a giant homeless shelter. The same unit in Fort Greene would go for twice as much. And yes, she knew exactly what she was doing before she signed the lease.

  10. Vernon

    @Donna – I believe the burden of proof is on you to provide evidence of any variances granted for noise levels since you originally mentioned it. I know from my research that it’s unlikely any were granted without proving undue hardship.

    I really don’t know if the police will enforce a lower decibel level, but I’m patiently waiting to find out. If it matters, the police chief himself has attended several of the ordinance meetings and has expressed that they will enforce them.

  11. McKeen Shanogg

    Maybe these bars/nightclubs should revisit the idea that people enjoy loud music. Maybe lots of customers would rather have a moderate level of music that makes it possible to hold a conversation? Maybe the ones who are attracted to blasting music are the same ones who bring problems like starting fights, causing property damage etc.?

  12. Donna

    @Vernon, you may believe whatever you like. The fact is that a mechanism exists for nightclubs to be exempted from noise mitigation in NYC. And NYC has been held up as the Norwalk poster child for successful noise mitigation.

    An examination of the tug of war between residential developers and nightclub owners nationwide shows that the problems aren’t limited to lax noise ordinances. In West Palm and San Francisco, condo developers lure in buyers by adversiting a vibrant, mixed use neighborhood but often fail to mention that investors sleep may be disturbed due to the pre-existing culture in the neighborhood of a noisy nightlife that includes bars and clubs luring in people from the street with loud music and thumping base. In San Francisco, nightclub owners have banded together to ban legal action against nightclubs by condo developers. The nightclub owners argue that their businesses were there before the million dollar condos arrived, and that new noise restrictions place an undue hardship on their ability to operate a successful business. Washington Street residential developers know they are selling condos in a mixed use zone, and that noise is part of the complex, layered picture of life in an urban zone. Some of the burden certainly belongs to those who sell real estate to unsuspecting buyers without warning them of the nightlife. No one buys a home at 2am after all.

    I would like to see nightlife improve on Washington Street. I oppose restrictions that could make it economically unfeasible to operate a bar or nightclub there. This is why I’ve been pretty consistent in suggesting that the cost of buffering noise so it does not disturb residents should be born by the property owner and not the business owner. On a personal level I sympathaize. But on a practical level, the tension between commercial interests and residential interests in a mixed use zone are to be expected, and should be anticipated by anyone who chooses to buy in this neighborhood.

    I used to sleep without light pollution. I now have to learn to live with it. I’m certainly not planning to ask the city to restrict the use of street lights because I chose to invest near them.

  13. Vernon

    @Donna – I totally agree that the property owner should bear the costs of noise mitigation. Last I checked, Pyramid Real Estate Group owned that unit and the owner of that company was partners with the business below me.

  14. Donna

    @Vernon, to the extent that noise levels in your home exceed 62 dbls, you have an enforcement problem. Maybe Pyramid needs to add noise buffers so they can continue to lease bars and nightclubs. Generally speaking, Washington Street is quieter now by several orders of magnitude than it used to be. The Beer Garden was no monastery. Ditto the Loft and Shenanigans. Room 112 is only open 4 nights a week. Already that’s 3 days quieter than previous occupants of that space.

    Realtors who sell property in a mixed use neighborhood where there are lots of bars have an obligation to tell propspective buyers what they’re buying. The burden of disclosure lies with the seller and the seller’s representative. There are means of legal recourse for those who purchase property and believe the owner failed to disclose the existing noise conditions.

    Mr. Neaderland raised an excellent point about building standards. This is a complex problem. Expect the resolution to be equally complex.

  15. Vernon

    @Donna – Enforcement is easier said then done. If they kept it consistently over 62dB(a) it would be fairly simple, but they will play some music at a lower volume, then a couple songs will be louder, then they’ll lower it again… and on and on throughout the night. Sometimes the volume is jacked up and down throughout each song. They often wait till late at night (after 11PM) to keep it louder becasue they know the police shift change is occurring and that resources are limited, so response times are slower.

    I’m also pretty sure the previous tenants of that unit used to keep a lookout for the police. The music would suddenly go lower a few minutes before our doorbell would be rung. Coincidence? I think not.

  16. Donna

    That’s where things get tricky and why in spite of an aggressive update in 2007, NYC still receives more quality of life complaints related to noise than to any other reason. But at least in New York, the city realizes there is revenue to be made chasing violators and they have also added code enforcement jobs.

    Those who live over a nightclub would probably prefer consistent noise to intermittent noise. Limited resources are also a huge problem in Norwalk and not just for noise complaints. When I asked about fines for violators of snow shoveling regulations, I was told by someone at the customer service desk that Norwalk already has too many fines, but the reason is more likely no budget for code enforcement.

    Is the CC open to better enforcement provisions? Without enforcement, the rules are worthless.

  17. Donald

    … The sound ordinance should not be changed because of buyer’s remorse. I would think that Norwalk are larger issue to deal with.

    Editor’s note: this comment has been edited to comply with the comments policy prohibition on insulting other commenters.

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