Ithaca, N.Y. — Ithaca officials want to resolve one problem with the city’s policy for noise complaints without creating a bigger one.

Here’s everything you need to know about Ithaca officials’ current push to reform the city’s noise complaint policy. Click on the question to get your answer.

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1 – What’s the current problem?
2 – How would they fix it?
3 – Couldn’t that overcomplicate a simple problem?
4 – How much noise is too much noise?
5 – Is some of this legal writing really fun to read?
6 – How loud can I play music in my car?
7 – What’s the punishment for violating a noise ordinance?
8 – How close is the city to passing this new policy?
9 – Is this really a big deal?
10 – Who wrote the new policy?

1 – What’s the current problem?

Bars and other establishments can currently be ticketed for creating an “unreasonable” amount of noise, said Common Council member Seph Murtagh, chair of the city’s administration committee.

But what constitutes “unreasonable” noise? Nobody really knows.

Right now, it basically boils to a police officer’s discretion. Officers are given a list of factors to consider — are people sleeping in the area? How long has the noise been going on for? — but there’s no real objective way of measuring “unreasonable” noise.

So bars are left to pretty much guess — and hope their neighbors either took healthy doses of Ambien or aren’t feeling particularly cranky.

Residents, meanwhile, don’t know when police officers will ticket offending establishments — and that leaves them similarly reliant on what essentially amounts to an officer’s opinion.

“The problem is you run into these situations where there’s no absolute determining standard,” said Murtagh, who has helped spearhead the noise ordinance reform effort.

“You have someone playing AC/DC, and the officer gets out of his car and it doesn’t necessarily sound loud to him,” but it might to the resident.

2 – How would they fix it?

The idea is to set a clear decibel limit. Police would be given a handful of meters to measure exactly how loud the noise is coming from a certain establishment.

“We thought we needed some kind of standard in there,” Murtagh said. “A rule that people can understand.”

Murtagh said the city would probably only need three or four meters and a few officers to be trained to use them.

“I think it will help the residents,” Murtagh said, “and help the business owners, too, who think the current rules are crazy.”

The solution would resolve the ambiguity and allow police to ticket violators for a more easily defined reason.

3 – Couldn’t that solution overcomplicate a simple problem?

There’s some concern that the decibel level will take away a crucial flexibility from a police officer to make a judgement call based on the circumstances of the event or gathering.

As a result, Murtagh said, the city plans on keeping the ordinance’s current language about “unreasonable” noise levels.

That way, an officer can still ticket businesses or partiers that appear to be causing an unreasonable amount of noise — even if there’s been no reading of a violation of the decibel standard.

Murtagh said that 90 percent of noise complaints are resolved well under the current system.

“You can still prosecute a noise offense under the unreasonable standard but the officer can use a meter if he or she thinks that’s necessary,” Murtagh said. “The idea is to create parallel standards.”

That way, an objective approach could be used to supplement an important subjective flexibility, according to Murtagh.

4 – How much noise is too much noise?

The city gives the following chart as part of its proposed ordinance:

And here is a “Loudness Comparison Chart,” for reference, from the California government:

5 – Is some of the legal writing really fun to read?

You bet it is. Here’s how the city’s proposed law would regulate “raised vocal effort” — e.g., shouting — while exempting “spontaneous utterances” — e.g., laughter:

“Raised vocal effort, such as shouting, yelling or screaming, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm or recklessly causing a risk thereof or that serves no legitimate purpose, when audible at distances greater than 100 feet, is prima facie evidence of a violation of this provision. This shall not apply to spontaneous utterances such as laughter, exclamations of warning, or sporting events.”

6 – How loud can I play music in my car?

Warning: “Personal or commercial vehicular music amplification” is prohibited if done in a way that is “plainly audible’ from 5 feet in any direction between 10 p.m. and 7:30 a.m.

From the city’s proposed legislation:

7 – What’s the punishment for violating a noise ordinance?

This one might surprise you. Violators can be punished with a fine up to $500 and jail of up to 15 days. That can rise to a $750 fine if it’s the second one in three years.

“Aggravating factors” relevant for the assessment of punishment, according to the city, include:
1 —A live band or “disc jockey.”
2 — Speakers placed outside or on a building.
3 — “A charge to gain etnrance into the premises or to consumer alcohol.”
4 — More than 25 guests on the premises.
5 — Underage drinkers.
6 — Multiple noise complaints.

8 – How close is the city to passing this new policy?

Ithaca is entering a public comment period for the new noise ordinance, according to Murtagh. The information has been distributed to the media and community listserves, he said.

Ithaca government officials will bring up the discussion again in October, Murtagh said.

9 – Is this really a big deal?

For those who live near businesses, loud noise can be a serious quality of life drain.

“It’s an ongoing thing and people are complaining about it night after night after night,” Murtagh said.

More than 100 people attended a forum to discuss the issue, Murtagh said.

Murtagh said downtown bars, rather than Collegetown or South Hill revelers, were the primary driver of the noise complaints spurring the policy shift.

10 – Who wrote the new policy?

The city contracted with a Rutgers expert to do much of the legwork on drafting the new policy.

Murtagh said the Rutgers consultant has been paid $8,000 for a few months of work, including coming to the city, drafting the ordinance and helping city council members sort through different problems.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.