Cover Story: How loud is too loud?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A softer approach to the noise ordinance.  Amid a quiet storm of controversy, the city of Charlotte releases its second draft.

Decibel limits for outdoor jam sessions.  Don't turn the music off, just turn it down.

Charlotte city leaders say they want to compromise.  It's music to everybody's ears.

Just drop the DB levels late at night, and we all rest a little easier.

Remember, the first draft was a hard-line stance that would have pulled the plug on porch and patio tunes across the city.

Local musicians said it would've killed their vibe.  But neighbors said the noise was keeping them up past bedtime.  So now the keyword is decibels.

It's the way we measure sound intensity. Volume.

How loud is too loud?  That's what will be measured.  It's not official yet, but this version seems to be having many more people singing its praises.

Charlotte's noise ordinance hasn't been tinkered with in 25 years.  In the three decades the city's grown up a lot.

Clubs has sprung up in neighborhoods and the Center City and the city's music scene has matured.

City council's first stab at the noise ordinance was to ban live amplified music outdoors that's within 400 feet of homes which would have effectively kept places like The Philosophers Stone, a restaurant and tavern on 7th and Pecan in the Elizabeth neighborhood from playing any outdoor music.

The newest version is a compromise.

Basically the loudest music could ever legally be played outdoors is 85 decibels.  Then when it gets late, the DB level drops to 60.  On weekends music can be played louder a little bit later.

Decibel levels measured from the property line of the business.

"This was a proposal by the "Save Charlotte Music Group" and they took most of their ideas from the Austin ordinance. We talked to the folks in Austin and we think they may have some good ideas that work here," said Charlotte City Attorney DeWitt "Mac" McCarley.

We wanted to find out how loud is too loud.  To see how loud 85 decibels is we went out to Interstate 85 with a sound level meter and pointed it toward traffic in west Charlotte.

Cars on the freeway peaked at 88, 89 and 90 on our unscientific meter.

Next to the Airport we went  Neighbors have complained about the noise here for years.

How loud are planes taking off?  They topped out at 100 decibels.

We went downtown next, it gets noisy here.  And on North Tryon Street it measured 85 DB.  The water fountain at the library checked in at 78.

Now remember 60 decibels is what the proposed ordinance recommends for clubs late at night.  That's about the noise level you find in a neighborhood that we checked out.

So while it doesn't completely ban outdoor music it does limit it to TVs and background music.

Also new cops will only take action if the sound level is disturbing to people in nearby residential areas.

Says McCarley, "What we're trying to do is match the common sense understanding that if it's not bothering anybody we ought not be enforcing against it.. What this says is you have to violate the numbers and it's got to be bothering somebody. Isn't that how we normally think of a problem?"

Violators would get slapped with a hefty fine, $1,000 what they're talking about.  A chronic violator could be barred from outdoor music for a year.

Where does the proposed ordinance stand now?  Next step is to go before the City Council's Community Safety Committee and they will debate it a week from Wednesday.

If they sign off on it, it'll go to the full city council for a vote.  Supporters are hoping to have something on the books before the summer concert season begins.

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