ASHEVILLE – Following calls for expediency by musicians and residents, City Council is set to vote July 27 on new rules dealing with one of the most contentious local issues: limits on various types of noise.
The council had planned to vote in September on whether to apply the new rules that would differentiate between noise based on where it comes from with fines escalating up to $500.
But at a June 22 meeting, musicians said planning for bands and at the city’s many music venues would already be finished by that time. Some residents also said they wanted faster relief from alleged repeat violators. In response, council members agreed to push the vote forward to July.
But Ben Woody, director of city development services, which is spearheading the ordinance overhaul, is proposing a minimum 30-day delay of a start to enforcement “for the establishment of a noise advisory board, the hiring of two staff positions, collection of
additional data and establishment of a sound exceedance permitting program.”
Opposing some of the proposed changes is the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, which represents neighborhood groups around the city. According to a CAN presentation planned for the council meeting, the new ordinance must “identify and accurately measure excessive noise sources, require excessive noise to be mitigated at source, aggressively manage repeat offenders,” as well as achieve other goals.
Asheville’s top noise issues
Here are the main noise problems, according to a city survey and public forums:
- Car noise (unmuffled exhaust, engine revving, “sound trucks”).
- Dog barking.
- Leaf blower, lawn mower or other outdoor equipment
- Industrial equipment (saws, wood grinders).
- Trash pickup, delivery dropoffs.
- Music over-amplification: venues, buskers, outdoor events.
(NOTE: These are sounds typically under the scope of municipal noise ordinances. Others, such as airplane noise and train horns are governed by other rules.)
If approved, the new noise ordinance would do away with current rules criticized as unworkable that say noise is disallowed if it injures health or safety or property or disturbs “a reasonable person of normal sensitivity.”
The new ordinance would set up two main sets of rules: one for sound originating in residential areas and public rights of way that would face a more subjective “noise disturbance standard.”
The other would be for sound originating in business, commercial and industrial districts. That noise would be subject to an objective decibel standard.
That would include a limit of 75 decibels in the day, 70 at night and 65 from 2-7 a.m. in the Central Business District, the zoning area around downtown. According to a Yale University environmental noise comparison chart, 75 decibels is equal to the sound of a vacuum cleaner, while a normal conversation could reach 70 and noise in a business office could reach 65.
CAN officials, though, say the limits should be lowered. Downtown, those should be 65 during the day and 60 at night and early morning.
According to the neighborhood group’s presentation, which is included in the council agenda, “measurements show commercial district 75-decibel daytime and
65-decibel nighttime sound limits (are) not needed for vibrant outdoor music.
Construction would face special limits and penalties including permit revocations.
The same person violating the noise rules with the same activity within two years would face escalating fines of $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second, $300 for the third and $500 for the fourth and subsequent offenses.
Music venues and special events would be allowed to exceed sound limits, but only with permits and, in some cases, sound impact plans and higher-level performance center regulations. Violations could lead to suspension, revocation or denial of permits. Fines would be $500 for operating without such a permit or $500 for violating conditions set in a permit.
Construction sites could also see $500 permits for violations.
Woody said the highest fines would only be for the worst violators.
“If the situation is chronic, fines can get to that amount,” the development services director said.
The planned vote follows years of failed attempts at reforming the noise rules. Those included five years of data collection by the Noise Ordinance Appeals Board attorney John Maddux, who asked every complaint from 2014 be directed to him.Maddux proposed in 2019 that violations be treated as infractions with $50 civil penalties handled by the court. But council members rejected that, saying it could spiral into successive court actions and criminalization if someone fails to appear.
Woody said police, musicians, residents groups and others worked over two years to create the rules, an effort stalled by the pandemic. City staff used nine months of public engagement and reviews of Asheville Police Department data to determine major causes of bothersome noise.
The city got about 2,000 calls a year, even during the pandemic, the staff said. That compares to 800-1,000 in Wilmington, a North Carolina city also known for tourism, but with a population of 123,744, compared to Asheville’s 92,870
Mountain topography that can direct sound in odd ways as well as repeat offenders are likely the reason for the high number of complaints, Woody has said.
Sound originating in public space, right-of-ways and residential districts: Noise Disturbance standard for equity.
Noise disturbance in public space, right-of-ways and residential districts would be judged according to:
- Time of day (daytime 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; nighttime 11 p.m.-7 a.m.).
- Volume and intensity (may include decibel measurement).
- Nature and zoning of the area.
- Amplified using megaphone, amplifier or other mechanical means.
- Frequency and duration of the noise.
Sound originating in downtown, commercial and industrial districts: Objective Decibel standard for clarity.
- Central Business District (CBD – downtown)
- Daytime 7 a.m.-11 p.m. (12 a.m. Fri-Sat): 75 decibels.
- Nighttime 11 p.m.-7 a.m. (12 a.m. Fri-Sat): 70 decibels.
- Late Night 2 a.m.-7 a.m. (CBD only): 65 decibels.
- Daytime: 75 decibels.
- Nighttime: 65 decibels.
- Daytime: 75 decibels.
- Nighttime: 65 decibels.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.