Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Downtown Establishment Night Noise

Balancing Act to Reduce Noise
An application or renewal of a liquor license in our neighborhood triggers questions on whether DNA should pursue a Voluntary Agreement. The process is time consuming requiring a formal protest so we do not pursue it lightly. We consider the proximity to a residential building, any neighborhood complaints, police Call-For-Service 251 reports, any Alcoholic Beverage Regulatory Administration (ABRA) complaints, and the type of application. Existing licenses are easier than new licenses because they have a track record while new licenses come with promises of the applicant. These are all considered by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) responsible for the geography where the applicant resides. As a civic association, DNA is required to hold a public hearing with at least ten days public notice so all neighborhood residents have the opportunity to discuss any concerns or present their support for the license holder. After that hearing, the DNA Board votes on whether to submit a formal protest of the application or renewal. It is through this protest that we gain standing before the Alcohol Beverage Commission Board (ABC) to pursue a Voluntary Agreement.

Why Do We Protest?
There is no question that living downtown in any major city brings with it the a level of excitement, public interaction, entertainment and noise that one does not find in less urban environments. Our own research shows that most residents moved downtown because of the cultural and entertainment venues along with access to several metro entrances, buses, trains, and quick access out of town via 395.

We love our restaurants, bars, theater, and the many venues at the Verizon Center. Still, no one buys or rents a downtown residence expecting that they will be living in an environment comparable to the Las Vegas Strip, New Orleans French Quarter, or Fells Point in Baltimore. That is not the history of our neighborhood, though many like to compare it to New York City’s Times Square. However, as someone who worked at The New York Times for a decade, we are no Times Square. Here, we focused on downtown living, attracting thousands of residents into the core of our city. Times Square, though, is not host to thousands of residents. And unlike our great city, they have beefed up their noise regulations and enforcement. Washington, DC, has regulations that are rarely enforced and we deserve a major overhaul of noise regulation.

Noise is a major concern for residents seeking sleep whether it comes from garbage trucks, over-served crowds, nighttime construction, or the local restaurant lounge or nightclub.

Who Pays the External Costs?
Noise is the most pervasive pollutants today. Noise from traffic, garbage trucks, fire trucks, construction equipment, protesters, car stereos, nightclub/tavern operations are among the audible litter that are routinely broadcast into the air. Noise negatively affects human health and well-being. Problems related to noise include hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, sleep loss, distraction and lost productivity, and a general reduction in the quality of life.

The air into which second-hand noise is emitted and on which it travels is a public good that belongs to all of us. It belongs to no one person or group, but to everyone. People, businesses, and organizations do no have unlimited rights to broadcast noise as they please, as if the effects of noise were limited only to their private property. Instead, this is an externality resulting from their private actions for which we pay for through lower quality of life and are harmed by the problems that noise creates.

This concept of external costs is not new concept. Still, there are some ANC commissioners, agency professionals, and many club owners who do not understand that the community has a higher right to reduced externalities than does the creator of the externalities. In short, mixed downtown residential/retail/commercial areas are not “free zones” where those who create noise have greater rights than those who suffer with the noise. This is one of the reasons that active ANC’s and neighborhood civic associations work to create Voluntary Agreements with establishments seeking to reduce the external costs that result from their operations.

Voluntary Agreements Reduce Externalities
The Downtown Neighborhood Association works with neighborhood establishments to develop agreements that reduce these externalities. The key issues that we approach include noise, crowds, operating hours, and public safety. Our efforts target establishments that are near residential buildings and whose operations will disrupt the lives of local residents who we believe have a higher right to peace and quiet than an establishment that seeks to profit by disrupting that peace and quiet. Any noise reduction involves either a change in their operations, investment in noise containment technologies, or both. Sadly, city regulations are a poor mediator for this conflict.

All of our agreements have clauses concerning disruptive noise that establishments agree too manage in order to get a liquor license. But, enforcement is a challenge. Much is blamed on the availability of noise measurement instruments, properly trained police officers, and the workload of DCRA measurement professionals. But these are not required at night. If a police officer agrees that the noise is loud enough that it may break the limit, a ticket can be issued without any measuring device. Even if they decide it is not worth the effort to generate a ticket, they can ask the establishment to turn the volume down and, as we have learned at our PSA meetings, can shut the establishment down if they fail to comply. So, there is no reason that noise should be a problem from dance clubs, night clubs, or Taverns if the police apply the authority they have.

Still, the permissible noise level that the city sets for downtown is high. Since Voluntary Agreements are enforceable by ABRA investigators and MPD officers, they provide an important quality of life component when they include more restrictive rules for establishment related noise. This takes an active community that works together to ensure that MPD is aware of these agreements so that they, along with ABRA, can help reduce the noise levels from these establishments.

Note: For a good source for information on the impact of noise, check out www.nonoise.org.

Miles E. Groves


  1. It's ADVISORY Neighborhood Commissions...not Area...sheesh...

  2. Oh, yes, "sheesh." What an important disctinction. Thanks for getting the discussion on the right track.