Despite undergoing frequent revision due to changing political pressures, the Austin Noise Ordinance is still poorly written. The very fundamental aspects of the ordinance are flawed, written by people attempting to adopt portions of ordinances from other jurisdictions without totally understanding the differences in terms which sound similar but are actually quite different. Here’s what’s wrong.
It Uses the Wrong Property Line
Measured levels at a property line are very commonly used in noise ordinances, and it makes sense to do so. But Austin’s Noise Ordinance has a very serious flaw: it refers to the wrong property line.
Typically, the property line of the complainant is what matters. Noise ordinances say you (the noise maker, or “source”) are not allowed to cause noise levels to exceed a certain level on my (the one hearing the noise, or “receiver’s”) property. This is logical and wholly compatible with the concept of noise enforcement being complaint driven.
Austin’s Ordinance, however, puts limits on levels as measured on the source’s property line. This implies that the effects of identical noises generated at 100′ and 1000′ are the same. This is illogical and unfair to noise generators who put effort into locating themselves away from residences or other noise-sensitive locations. As I see it, this is the biggest flaw in the Ordinance as it stands today.
I’ve listed the relevant sections from the Ordinance below. Amusingly, the only part of the ordinance that refers to the affected property line is for mobile food establishments.
Guidance for Noise Enforcement is Spread Throughout the Code of Ordinances
There are bits of regulation for sound in various sections of the code of ordinances. The actual noise section primarily deals with permitting and has very little in the way of explanation of permitted noise levels.
The sections of the ordinance that are most often used to enforce noise complaints come from zoning, rather than the actual noise section. Recently this was brought into public view when the levels specified in the restaurant zoning section were used against Freddy’s on South First.
It is inefficient and illogical to have different, sometimes contradictory, noise standards spread throughout the code of ordinances. All enumeration and explanation of noise limits should be kept in a single section, referenced by other sections when appropriate. This will promote better understanding of the limits and homogeneity, and also prevent future “gotcha” uses of limits which are hiding in other sections.
All Sound Sources Are Treated The Same
With a few exceptions, all sound sources are treated equally. Since the ordinance (like most ordinances) relies on A-weighted decibels, this results in a flawed system.
Music and construction noise are very different types of sounds, and should be treated as such by the Ordinance. Music is very tonal in nature and is very recognizable to humans. This makes it more perceptible and, sometimes, more annoying than other types of sound. It also has a lot of low frequency content, which is more or less ignored by A-weighting. dBA is a not an appropriate metric for for music.
The ordinance should include modifications to general limits which account for tonal, rhythmic, and impulsive characteristics of sounds. Alternatively, the ordinance could have limits for individual frequency bands, rather than the A-weighted spectrum.
Here are the relevant sections from the Austin Code of Ordinances
§ 9-2-4 RESTRICTION ON DECIBEL LEVEL.
A person may not operate sound equipment at a business that produces sound:
(1) in excess of 85 decibels between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., as measured at the property line of the business; or
(2) is audible at the property line of the business between 2:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.
Source: 1992 Code Section 10-5-4; Ord. 031023-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 9-2-5 RESTRICTION ON USE OF SOUND EQUIPMENT IN A RESIDENTIAL AREA.
(A) This section applies to property zoned as residential under Section 25-2-32(B) (Zoning Districts and Map Codes).
(B) A person may not use sound equipment that produces sound audible beyond the property line of a residence in a residential area between 10:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m.
(C) A person may not use sound equipment audible beyond the property line of a residence in a residential area that produces sound in excess of 75 decibels.
Source: 1992 Code Section 10-5-5; Ord. 031023-13; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 25-2-583 COMMERCIAL RECREATION (CR) DISTRICT REGULATIONS.
(A) This section applies in a commercial recreation (CR) district.
(K) The noise level of live music may not exceed 70 decibels, measured at the property line.
Source: Section 13-2-660; Ord. 990225-70; Ord. 031211-11; Ord. 20090521-017.
§ 25-2-648 PLANNED DEVELOPMENT AREA (PDA) PERFORMANCE STANDARDS.
(A) This section applies to a planned development area agreement or zoning district. The requirements of this section supersede conflicting provisions of a planned development area agreement or ordinance, if any.
(B) A planned area development may not produce a dangerous or objectionable element, as described in this section or a City administrative rule.
(E) A dangerous or objectionable element may not exceed the limits prescribed by this subsection.
(1) Except for noise from a transportation facility or construction work, noise may not exceed 55 decibels LAN during daylight hours and 45 decibels LAN during night time hours.
Source: Section 13-2-269; Ord. 990225-70; Ord. 000309-39; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 25-2-808 RESTAURANTS AND COCKTAIL LOUNGES.
(3) Live entertainment is permitted if the amplified sound does not exceed 70 decibels, measured at the property line of the licensed premises. In this paragraph, “premises” has the meaning ascribed to it in the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.
Source: Section 13-2-263; Ord. 990225-70; Ord. 031211-11.
§ 25-2-812 MOBILE FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS.
(D) The noise level of mechanical equipment or outside sound equipment used in association with a mobile food establishment may not exceed 70 decibels when measured at the property line that is across the street from or abutting a residential use.
Source: Ord. 20060928-020; Ord. 20080131-134.
§ 25-3-86 COMPATIBILITY STANDARDS [FOR TRADITIONAL NEIGHBORHOOD DISTRICTS]
(B) The noise level of mechanical equipment may not exceed 70 decibels at the property line.
Source: Section 13-9-56; Ord. 990225-70; Ord. 031211-11.