New Orleans City Council to introduce new Bourbon Street noise ordinance March 27

March 18 2014 | Latest News
By Richard A. Webster, | The Times-Picayune

The New Orleans City Council is set to introduce a new ordinance dealing with sound levels on Bourbon Street at its March 27 regular meeting, expecting to bring one part of what has been a long and contentious debate closer to a resolution.

The announcement was made at Monday's Housing and Human Needs Committee after the city's sound expert, David Woolworth, presented his preliminary recommendations. They included a hard cap on legal noise levels on Bourbon Street and a requirement that sound measurements be taken from the doorway of the nightclub accused of exceeding that limit - not in the middle of the street as done under current law.

Woolworth suggested that new legislation be introduced in April but Councilwoman Stacy Head said she wanted something ready by next week. Most people involved with the issue are "moving in the same direction," towards Woolworth's recommendations, and it is time to "put pen to paper and draft an ordinance we can then start debating," Head said.

This will be the council's second attempt in the past three months at changing the current law. It introduced a more expansive proposal in December that would have changed decibel limits in the entire French Quarter as well as how sound would have been measured throughout the city.

Head and Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer withdrew that proposal after widespread opposition and said they would narrow their focus to just Bourbon Street.

The new ordinance will be designed to bring clarity to the current law, which is too vague and difficult to enforce, Woolworth said.

Presently, the legal sound limit on Bourbon Street is 10 decibels above the ambient noise level, or 60 decibels, whichever is higher. Sixty decibels is equivalent to the noise level made by normal conversation, according to the University of Wisconsin. Under current law, the measurements are taken 25 feet from the source. That places the person taking the measurement in the middle of the street making it virtually impossible to determine which music club is exceeding the allowable limit, Woolworth said.

In an August 2013 study, Woolworth recommended a limit of 91 decibels on Bourbon Street and said his new proposal will be in that "ballpark," though he is still in the process of collecting data and public input. At 91 decibels, the noise is equivalent to the sound a truck or bus passing 10 feet away, and it's eight times as loud as normal conversation.

Woolwoth called the 91 decibel proposal "conservative" and cautioned both sides in the debate to be reasonable with their demands.

"There might be negotiations (on the decibel limit) with people pushing and pulling but if people push and pull in equal amounts we'll be right back where we started," Woolworth said.

Over the past several weeks, Woolworth has held five public meetings through the French Quarter Management District that included four "sound walks" where he demonstrated on Bourbon Street how noise was measured.

Palmer said she requested that the district, a state agency created to handle quality of life issues in the French Quarter, help oversee the drafting of a new ordinance because it is required to follow public meeting laws and its board includes representatives from every business and resident organization in the Vieux Carre.

French Quarter resident Nathan Chapman, who favors the lowering of decibel limits, told the council that "long-standing watchdog organizations" such as French Quarter Citizens and Vieux Carre Property Owners Residents and Associates could not support the current process or a new ordinance as long as it involved the district.

"The process I've personally encountered since this past summer in my multiple dealings with the French Quarter Management District were hostile at best and slanderous at worst," Chapman said.

The district opposed the December ordinance favored by French Quarter Citizens and VCPORA, both of which resigned from the agency's board in February.

Chapman requested that Woolworth meet with the neighborhood groups and their own sound experts so they could discuss his recommendations and negotiate the specifics of new legislation.

After the two neighborhood organizations resigned, Palmer said she called their presidents and offered to arrange private meetings with Woolworth.

Chapman said "a meeting is not the same thing as sitting down to negotiate."