Residents make noise about proposed ordinance

by Eric Ginsburg

Greensboro City Council won’t vote on proposed changes to the city’s noise ordinance until March 6, but residents are already fired up. City staff is in the process of rewriting the proposal that went before council on Feb. 7, which included harsher punishments, a lower decibel threshold and new measurement requirements.

While the noise ordinance is designed to cover the entire city, the discussion has gravitated towards downtown, which has been the source of some conflict between residents and nightclubs and patrons.

Mayor Robbie Perkins, who lives on the ninth floor of the Center- Pointe high-rise, brought the issue up but did not write the specific proposed changes that were brought forward, he said. Perkins told a crowd at the first meeting of the Downtown Residents’ Association on Feb. 22 that the noise didn’t bother him in his apartment, but said he’s received numerous complaints.

“I think we’ve got a problem, and it’s basically been brought to light by the Greene Street bar and what they do on the rooftop,” Perkins said. “Any realistic person that is down there is going to say it’s too loud. You can awaken the dead from half a mile away from what they are putting out down there.”

Speculation about the source of discontent has centered on Roy Carroll, who redeveloped CenterPointe and is selling condominiums there. While it’s difficult to find downtown residents who publicly express concern about noise, opponents of a move to make the ordinance more restrictive have not been shy about their outrage. Opponents have mobilized through Facebook and pledged to make their voices heard by city council.

“Roy hasn’t really reached out to me,” Councilman Zack Matheny said, bringing up Carroll without prompting. “Some of his residents have. I think we can find a happy medium.”

With the exception of Perkins, it is difficult to identify the source of the discontent, while many Greensboro residents are willing to publicly voice staunch opposition to the proposed changes.

The noise ordinance, which was last revised in 2009 to target car stereos, currently prohibits sounds over 65 decibels from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The proposed changes would lower the threshold to 45 decibels and would be measured from the property line of the noise’s source instead of the site of the complainant — in some cases, inside a resident’s home. Instead of a fine, violators would instead face charges for a Class 3 misdemeanor.

Perkins said he wasn’t sure 45 decibels was the proper limit, saying council members are spending time downtown at night with police officers carrying decibel reading equipment to gain perspective on what is reasonable. The mayor added that he supports a more restrictive ordinance including replacing citations with a civil penalty that would escalate for repeat offenders and measuring decibels at the property line.

“The council made a very wise move by not voting on what was proposed,” Perkins said at the Downtown Residents Association meeting. “Lots of cities are experiencing the same issue. We’re going to do it in a sensible way.”

It is unclear what changes city staff will bring before council at the March 6 meeting, but residents and business owners alike are upset about potential changes, particularly the decibel level.

Measured at close proximity, a running refrigerator emits roughly 40 decibels, a normal conversation is 60 to 70 and the city traffic is 80.With such volumes for relatively quiet activity, the distance at which noise is measured becomes significant.

“That level cannot even be obtained outside our venue when we are closed,” said Grady Green, general manager of Greene Street. “If a car comes by you reach 80 decibels.”

Business owners at locations like Greene Street say they will be negatively impacted, and even though the ordinance is citywide, they say they feel targeted.

Ashby Cook III, the majority owner at Venue on Elm Street, said he plans to build a twolevel outdoor patio to be completed at the end of May, costing $75,000 and creating five full-time jobs. Cook said if the ordinance passes with the existing changes, he would cancel the expansion.

“This will affect the sales tax the city gets and take away jobs,” Cook said. “If you move downtown you’ve got to expect nightlife.” Cook said the changes would also affect Venue’s current operations, because the club plays amplified music in front as a way of advertising that it is open.

Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan said there is more of a noise problem on High Point Road and Spring Garden Street than downtown. The overall number of complaints to the Greensboro police hit a four-year high in 2011. There were 5,372 noise complaints across the city last year — up from 5,187 in 2010.

Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton said the majority of noise complaints to the police come from other parts of the city like the UNCG area. As a downtown resident living in Southside, Wolverton has called the police a few times over the years about noise, but said the current ordinance covered those cases.

“It’s a real tough issue because there are some folks that say the noise ordinance shouldn’t apply downtown,” he said. “It’s incumbent on everyone to find a balance. Most people expect if they live downtown there’s going to be more noise.”

Downtown Greensboro Inc. announced plans to host a decibel test at Center City Park on Wednesday so people could better understand the current threshold and possible changes.

When LF USA recently relocated to Greensboro, employee Steve Gobbo said they were attracted to the proximity to the airport and the high education level. When Gobbo chose to move with them from New York City, he moved into CityView apartments so he could walk to nightlife, and said he was actually attracted to the noise of the trains.

“It sounds kind of silly to me,” he said, referring to the noise ordinance. “If you live downtown you have to expect a certain level of noise.”

The current noise ordinance does not differentiate between downtown or commercial areas and residential areas, as other cities such as Raleigh do. Perkins said he did not think this should change, but that varying decibel thresholds based on the night of the week might be reasonable.

Carmen Vaquera, a bartender at Syn and Sky next to Venue, said she fears the changes could threaten jobs like hers and could shut some nightclubs down.

“In a city where our economy is not where we want it to be, it’s a poor decision to do something like that,” Vaquera said. “I understand it’s for the residents’ sakes, but I live in downtown [too]. You don’t move to this location and expect it to be the suburbs or quiet all the time. Maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle.”

Vaquera wasn’t alone in emphasizing a compromise between residents in certain areas, specifically downtown, and businesses and patrons. Other residents such as Wolverton and council members such as Nancy Hoffmann, Matheny and Perkins said they hoped comparison to other cities and more research would yield a solution most people could get behind.

“I think it’s important that we keep in line from other cities that we don’t deter businesses from moving somewhere else,” said Dianne Ziegler, who lives on South Elm Street and founded the Downtown Residents Association. “It seems like everybody is taking a step in the right direction. There is such a differentiation between 45 decibels and 65 decibels, [so] education helps.”