More than a year after the New Orleans City Council threw up its hands on an attempt to revamp the city’s sound ordinance, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration is taking its first small steps into the fray.
The new initiative, known as Sound Check, attempts to recast the fight over sound levels from nightclubs and other sources as a public health issue.
It will send a team of Health Department workers armed with decibel meters through the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny to measure noise levels and, in some cases, try to persuade business owners to turn the music down.
While the effort will focus on education for now, the data collected by the workers in the program could lay the groundwork for another crack at revisions to the sound ordinance.
“We’re saying (to businesses): ‘Here’s some info, here’s some ways you can help your consumers and customers be safe and have a good time,’ ” city Health Director Charlotte Parent said.
The initiative comes at a time of relative quiet in the debate over decibels.
Efforts to revamp the city’s sound ordinance — and heated clashes between businesses that argue existing rules are too restrictive and nearby residents who complain that loud venues hurt their quality of life — became an ongoing issue in recent years. But with the failure of efforts to pass any kind of change through the City Council last year, the two sides were left to regroup as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration took a lead on the effort.
The plan that emerged with input from consultant Monica Hammer, who has worked on the sound ordinance in Chicago, takes cues from the way the city has handled the indoor smoking ban for bars approved early this year.
Hammer replaced David Woolworth, who worked for the council as it attempted to draft a new sound ordinance and was seen as favoring less stringent rules than some French Quarter and other residential groups sought. She is working on a contract worth up to $39,000.
The new program will be only an educational effort at first. It has a $250,000 yearly budget.
The initial phase will see four Health Department workers roaming the Quarter and Marigny, hot spots for complaints because of their large numbers of music venues close to homes. The workers will take noise readings and inform business owners about the deleterious health effects of loud music.
Parent said those effects include hearing loss as well as increased stress and higher blood pressure if the volume remains high for too long.
The website for the project, at nola.gov/health-department, urges musicians to use hearing protection and to monitor their volume level. It also has advice for business owners on how to position their speakers and to provide hearing protection to their staff.
Until now, the Police Department has handled noise complaints, though actual citations have been rare over the past year, given the complicated and cumbersome ordinance on the books.
Officers called to investigate a noise complaint typically try to defuse the situation rather than write tickets, except in a handful of cases in the Quarter or Marigny where there have been extreme examples of repeat violations, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
While there will be no efforts at enforcement initially, the Health Department could begin crafting recommendations for changing the existing sound ordinance, though Parent said there is no timeline for that effort. Those recommendations would draw from the data on noise that the workers are collecting.
“The collection of data is a universally accepted first step,” said Scott Hutcheson, who heads the mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy.
If those recommendations for new rules are approved, Health Department workers could begin enforcement efforts.
“We want to inform and create something we can educate about and would be enforceable,” Parent said.
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