Panel sets stage for sound limits on Bourbon Street _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Musicians and supporters raillied and then stormed New Orleans City Hall in January 2014 in protest of the French Quarter proposed noise ordinance.

A New Orleans City Council committee endorsed an ordinance Monday setting new sound restrictions for Bourbon Street, clearing the way for a full council vote later this week on an ordinance that has drawn passionate and loud debate for nearly four years.

After contemplating new rules that would have applied citywide, the council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration decided a few months ago to confine the new limits to the most raucous portion of the French Quarter’s most famous entertainment strip, at least for now.

Although the new ordinance would establish new overall decibel caps, most of the proposed changes are aimed at improving enforcement, which all sides agree has been nearly impossible under the existing law.

“This legislation will not fix every problem in the existing code,” said Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, pointing out that Landrieu and an incoming slate of council members will have to decide whether to expand the changes to other parts of the city.

The odds of that happening aren’t clear. Palmer, who has been deeply involved in trying to mediate between competing factions on the issue, decided not to run for re-election this year and will relinquish her seat next month along with two other council members.

In a parting shot, Palmer laid some of the blame for divisions over the ordinance on Councilwoman Stacy Head, accusing her of unsettling delicate negotiations by introducing a set of revisions in January without sufficient input.

“From the very outset, we decided that we were going to work together and do this piece by piece to make sure that we do not have any unintended consequences and also ensure that our culture is protected,” Palmer said. “Where we got sidetracked, quite frankly, was when an ordinance came out of council member Head’s office, and it was put in too quickly, and it appeared like it was going around the process we had all determined.”

Head’s proposal drew a parade of outraged musicians to City Hall in January.

The new revisions remain controversial, though mainly among those who feel they won’t bring the volume down enough.

Head did not attend Monday’s committee meeting, and her office said she wasn’t available for comment. But in a statement prepared before the meeting, she raised concerns that the authorized decibel levels may still be too high.

“Time will tell,” she said, “and stakeholders should, as I will, monitor these levels to recommend adjustments where necessary.”

If approved by the full council, the new ordinance will shift responsibility for enforcing the sound ordinance from an overworked police force to the Health Department. The city is in the process of hiring four new health officers for the job.

Instead of trying to measure decibel levels at the site of a complaining resident’s home or business, the officers would take decibel readings at a supposedly offending bar or nightclub, in hopes of avoiding confusion about where the sound is coming from and giving owners more of an opportunity to police themselves.

For the first time, the city also would attempt to differentiate sounds by frequency, placing specific limits on the glass-rattling bass tones that bring so many complaints.

And instead of taking a 10-minute reading — another barrier to effective enforcement — officials would have to measure the sound for only 20 seconds.

In a nod to concerns about damaging the city’s famed musical culture, the new ordinance would expand an exemption for jazz funerals and other traditions.

It also would effectively decriminalize sound infractions. The Health Department would be handing out fines, and even though police would still have the authority to enforce the rules as well, there would no longer be any possibility of jail time, even for repeat offenders.

It’s possible, however, that the maximum fine will be going up, although that won’t be up to the council. The Legislature is considering a bill, which has the council’s backing, that would hike the limit from $500 to $5,000.

Palmer and Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, the only two members of the council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee in attendance Monday, voted to send the revisions to the full council, though not without criticism from French Quarter residents who want lower decibel limits. Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, also a committee member, was absent.

Two staunchly opposed neighborhood groups — the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, and French Quarter Citizens — sent Arline Bronzaft, a hired expert and veteran of New York City’s noise debates, to speak on their behalf.

She argued that the ordinance should refer to “noise” and not the more diplomatic “sound,” telling council members, “If you’re in your home and this is an unwanted, uncontrollable sound, then it’s all noise.”

She also made the case that musicians and clubgoers themselves would benefit from tighter restrictions as much as nearby homeowners. “High levels of sound can lead to deafness,” she said, mentioning Pete Townshend, who suffered hearing loss after years of performing with The Who.

Opponents of earlier drafts of the sound ordinance, who had raised concerns that new restrictions might hurt the very musical culture that helps underpin the city’s economy, seemed pleased with the outcome.

“This draft law is a really good example of what a good process can do,” said Hannah Kreiger-Benson, a spokeswoman for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. She predicted the ordinance will help “curb some of the very real excesses” on Bourbon Street, “and therefore has a chance of making the soundscape and the urban landscape we all share better.”