City Council to try again to rewrite rules on sound levels _lowres

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Trumpeter Mark Levron plays Bourbon Street Parade while working the room at the Maison Bourbon for tips. Many musicians and their supporters say the proposed new zoning ordinance goes too far in regulating where music can be played in the French Quarter.

Hold onto your horns. The New Orleans City Council could be preparing to wade once again into the fraught topic of regulating sound levels throughout the city.

This time, the council will be starting with a version of the measure that in some respects moves the needle closer to the desires of those seeking a more permissive ordinance. There already are signs that some neighborhood groups are pushing back.

Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey drafted the latest version of the regulations and had it introduced earlier this month — a move that took many on both sides of the debate by surprise.

Her office released a statement casting her proposal as a way to restart the conversation and not as a final product.

“I am not necessarily committed to everything being proposed by this ordinance, and I intend to ensure that this issue is fully and publicly vetted by all interested parties,” Ramsey said.

Previous proposed versions of the sound ordinance were hotly debated in the past two years, pitting residents’ groups against business owners and musicians’ advocates over where to draw the line between culture and nuisance. Even though all sides seemed to agree that some updates were necessary to bring regulations originally passed in the 1950s up to current standards, no changes ever made it through the council.

The first version was scrapped after protests by musicians, while a later attempt that was opposed by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates and other groups led to deadlock on the council.

Ramsey’s proposal picks up in part where last year’s debate ended, though turnover on the council since then means it’s not clear where members stand.

Ramsey and Councilmen Jason Williams and Jared Brossett all have taken office since the last go-round.

Neighborhood groups opposed to Ramsey’s ordinance have drafted a report listing their concerns about her proposal, which they say would allow higher sound levels in the French Quarter and other residential districts than either current regulations or last year’s draft. It also would allow for a louder bass level than the city’s former sound consultant, David Woolworth, recommended last year — a level that already was higher than national recommendations, the critics say.

“The councilwoman’s office has reached out to us and told us that this is just a first draft to get a debate started, and we will participate and hope that a good, strong, fair ordinance is passed ultimately by the council,” said Stuart Smith, an attorney who has represented several of the neighborhood groups who have fought for a stricter noise ordinance. “That’s what we’ve been told and promised by our councilperson.”

Smith, who has personally led the fight against some noisy venues in the Quarter, also said the issue of sound should be treated as a public health issue because disruptive volumes can cause health problems.

For their part, businesses and musicians’ advocates have said they’re looking forward to discussions about the ordinance.

“I think it’s certainly workable. I think it’s a good base on which to start,” Ethan Ellestad, of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, said about Ramsey’s proposal.

A key component of the fight will be how the council handles the problem of ambient noise, a particular issue on Bourbon Street and other areas where it can be hard to determine whether it’s the sound coming from businesses or from crowds in the street that is causing problematic total volumes.

“It’s unfair to attribute noise to a business when it’s really coming from people,” said Robert Watters, president of Rick’s Cabaret and a spokesman for many clubs in the Quarter.

Ramsey’s draft does not eliminate an 8 p.m. curfew for street musicians. Striking that provision from the regulations was a “core objective” of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which considers it unconstitutional, spokesman Brad Howard said. However, an effort to strike that provision inspired a last-minute push by French Quarter residents against the most recent attempt to change the regulations.

The new measure also would remove the responsibility for punishing violators from the city’s Municipal Court and make violations an administrative matter, which the neighborhood groups say could create problems with enforcement.

Complicating the entire matter is how the city’s newly selected noise consultant will play into the debate and later the enforcement of any ordinance that passes the council. Consultant Monica Hammer, a sound consultant and environmental lawyer, was chosen by the city’s Health Department earlier this year to work on education and enforcement policies dealing with sound levels.

Under Ramsey’s ordinance, enforcement would be split between the Health Department and the Police Department. The previous version of the measure had taken that responsibility out of the NOPD’s hands entirely.

NOPD enforcement was seen as a drain on the department’s overstretched resources and potentially an issue if officers did not have the proper training to measure sound levels and handle complaints.

Both Ellestad and Watters said much will depend on how any regulations are enforced. They urged the city to take an approach based on trying to bring people into voluntary compliance rather than punishing them for violations.

“This ordinance should be written in such a way that it puts people in compliance rather than punishing offenders immediately,” Ellestad said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.