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New Noise Ordinance in F.C. in Search of Balance

F.C. CITY BUSINESS OWNERS and City Council members attended a noise demonstration in Cherry Hill Park last week. The soothing tones of Jethro Tull were played at various volumes and distances to give both parties an idea of what the decibel levels looked like under the City’s new noise ordinance. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields called the City Council’s adoption of modifications to the City’s noise ordinance made this Monday “more than many other communities do” to provide for outdoor entertainment.

As the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent bans on indoor dining and other activities have cut deeply into local restaurant and entertainment venue incomes the last 15 months, attempts by some key City businesses to move their activities outdoors and to attract additional customers with live music has created a major dust-up in the Little City.

In particular, citizens in their residences adjacent such locations have complained loudly about the impact of the noise on their homes. F.C. Police have been repeatedly called with complaints and the City Council has taken months to craft a legal compromise that respects the residents as well as acknowledges the burden on local businesses to stay open through the tough times.

Shields was referring to the latter point, noting that many jurisdictions simply respect the demands for peace and quiet by residents and shut down any activity that interrupts that with music or other noises.

Falls Church has taken a different tack, led by Council member Ross Litkenhous and others, to craft a more nuanced noise ordinance that would allow for outdoor music to continue as an option the City values.

The first step was to acquire a noise decibel meter, and when it was finally set up, for members of the Council and City staff to attend a demonstration with the meter at Cherry Hill Park last week. It was led by F.C. Police Captain Steve Rau, and it was thought that a level of 70 would work for the City’s industrial zones, and 65 for commercial zones (that often abut residential areas).

“Our posture is to work with the business community to develop a solution that would work for all,” Shields said. “Clearly, there have been complaints from numerous residents that no noise at all is their preference.”

But the official staff recommendation to the Council this Monday was for a uniform decibel level of 65 up to 10 p.m. on weekends, and after a heated discussion Monday, that was adopted by a 6-1 vote (Litkenhous, arguing for a level of 75 but willing to accept 70, voting ‘No.’)

Litkenhous said the low 65 limit is “incongruent with a dense, vibrant, urban walkable community.” He said it would “set up for controversy” current outdoor music venues operated by Clare and Don’s restaurant and The State Theater.

He also suggested the time limit be set at 10:30 rather than 10 p.m. But Council member Letty Hardi said that 10 works because it was what everyone has become used to during the past pandemic year.

Councilman David Snyder said the adopted version “is a reasonable balance, as good as we hope we can get,” though Councilman Phil Duncan said he didn’t think that 65 was enough. “It doesn’t take into account the impact of leaves on trees and other variants,” he said.

Everyone agreed that the noise issue was not something that law enforcement ought to be burdened with, but that it should be handled as a zoning matter.

Mayor David Tarter said that the new ordinance at least will deal with the “reasonable person” standard (“noise that annoys or disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensibilities”) for measuring violations, which has been determined to be unconstitutional but is still what is in force as the standard in most jurisdictions.

“Getting rid of that in our noise ordinance is a first step,” Tarter said. He said that while he supports the 65 decibel limit, “I think we need to be more agile in the enforcement, to tailor our response to specific conditions.”

The ordinance would apply to more than music, including loud leaf blowers and industrial equipment.

Tarter said he wants to see outdoor music thrive in the Little City, and that the vote at 65 was “only a first step.”

In other Council developments at its virtual meeting this week:

• Claire Weatherly, the regional winner of the Virginia Municipal League’s “If I Were Mayor” message contest, shared her essay with the Council, and Robert Bullington, communications director for the VML, spoke about the program.

• After a Council briefing Monday, as of press time Wednesday, the City still is in the dark about how much federal American Recovery Act money it can expect, though City officials say that will come next week. However, City officials are delighted to learn that “use rules” for the money allow funds to be used for storm water relief and that it will have up to four years to spend the money.

• The Council was briefed but did not act on the request by the developers of the 10-acre west end project to establish a West Falls Community Development Authority that would permit it to raise funds from business at the site to bond for infrastructure projects at the site.