Council tries new tack on Quarter noise

Posted on: April 4 2012
"An acquitted case leads the City Council to define the rules more."

April 4, 2012

Michelle Krupa, The Times Picayune

The latest battle in the decades-long war over noise in the French Quarter has nothing to do with volume -- at least not explicitly. Under a proposed ordinance that could get a vote from the New Orleans City Council as soon as Thursday, commercial enterprises in the historic neighborhood, as well as the Central Business District, would face stiff fines based on the proximity of their loudspeakers to open windows and doors, regardless of how loudly the music plays.

City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, the measure's author, wants to add the regulation to the city code notwithstanding a slew of laws already on the books that govern the type and volume of noise allowed in all corners of New Orleans -- some of them down to the decibel.

Palmer's initiative comes on the heels of a Municipal Court ruling this month in favor of a Bourbon Street bar that was cited by police for violating a 1998 ordinance that prohibits the use of loudspeakers for the purpose of "attracting the attention of the public to any building, structure, or vehicle."

Scores of neighbors, including members of the anti-volume group Hear the Music, Stop the Noise, heaped praise on the New Orleans Police Department for citing the business owner, saying lax enforcement has led to noise levels that routinely keep them awake at night.

Judge rejects charges

But ad hoc Judge John Blanchard acquitted the bar owner, after his attorney argued that the city code doesn't clearly define what constitutes a violation of the loudspeaker ordinance, and that the citation amounted to selective enforcement in an environment where ear-popping tunes blare day and night on virtually every block.

Palmer's legislative aide, Nicole Webre, pointed to the case as the impetus for the proposed changes, which would require bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to keep loudspeakers 10 feet or more from any exterior doors and windows -- or shut the doors and windows.

For establishments without a liquor license, the gap would be 20 feet. In both cases, sound could not be projected from the back of a speaker, and the city fire marshal could grant exemptions to allow doors and windows to remain open. Owners, managers, disc jockeys and anyone named on the business's occupational license would be on the hook for violations.

'An objective standard'

In contrast to the current rule, the new law would set "an objective standard," Webre said by email. During a council hearing Tuesday on the matter, a supporter of the concept said a cop only would need "their set of eyes and a tape measure" to enforce the law.

As for another long-standing ordinance that sets decibel limits in nine zoning categories, including for the French Quarter, Webre said that although the Police Department has stepped up enforcement, "there isn't enough manpower to go out and take sound measurements of businesses nor is there enough sound meters to go around."

For years, the NOPD has had two or three decibel readers, department spokeswoman Remi Braden said. The devices, which were donated, cost $1,300 each and are sometimes "inoperative and in need of repair and calibration," she said.

Braden could not immediately say how many violations of the city's noise ordinance cops have cited in the past month.

During Tuesday's meeting of the council's Sanitation and Environmental Committee, Palmer and Councilman Jon Johnson said they understood concerns expressed by some bar owners and business leaders that the 10-foot and 20-foot boundaries could compel small venues to direct speakers toward rear walls, forcing sound to bounce and creating headaches for patrons.

The officials stopped short of proposing a change, however.

Hurting Bourbon business

Some proprietors also argued Tuesday that Palmer's ordinance could sap the party atmosphere that annually draws millions of visitors -- and their cash -- to downtown bars.

"I hope that it is not anybody's intention to close all the doors and windows on Bourbon Street," said Robert Watters of the Bourbon Business Alliance. "We could harm a vital industry."

"We would certainly take away the ambiance that the French Quarter is producing for our guests that come into town," said Jude Marullo, who owns three French Quarter establishments. "I would urge the council to not totally kill our businesses with the way this is written right now."

Others, including Tom Bissell of the advocacy group French Quarter Citizens, expressed strong support for the draft "as written," while Meg Lousteau of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates said she generally supports the measure but requested a deferral to review last-minute alterations.

As presented Tuesday, Palmer's proposal reflects a few major changes from her original, key among them the removal of a provision that would have allowed the city to shut down for as many as two days, including a Friday, any business that breaks the law more than once.

The penalty appeared to violate a state statute that limits sanctions local governments can dole out, Webre said.

Meanwhile, the latest draft would double -- from $250 to $500 -- the penalty for a first violation. Each subsequent violation also would garner a $500 fine, plus any court-imposed sanction.

Also stricken was a section that would have required musicians to abide by the rules, as well as one that would have restricted the placement of loudspeakers in establishments that lack exterior roofs, such as the French Market and the New Orleans Musical Legends Park.

Palmer said after Tuesday's meeting that she plans to draft a separate ordinance to deal with excessive noise outdoors.

"The hope is that we can do another amendment that deals specifically with those types of unique spaces," she said. "We wanted something very clearly definable for this go round."

Palmer had not decided by the end of Tuesday's meeting whether to call for a vote on her proposal at Thursday's council meeting or to defer it to the April 19 session.