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Good Questions

Noise As A "Public Nuisance"

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 5/16/2007

In Baltimore City you can be denied access to your own house for up to a year if you are convicted of two public-nuisance violations in 24 months. The law defines "public nuisances" as prostitution, drug activity, gambling, and possession of stolen property. But City Council President Stephanie Rawlings Blake recently revived a 2005 bill that would add excessive noise to the mix of punishable public nuisances. Using the city Health Department's guidelines, noise in Baltimore is prohibited above 55 decibels at the property line in residential areas during the day and 50 at night. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, normal conversation is 65 decibels. It's the kind of thing that might make city homeowners nervous that their annual Fourth of July parties will get them kicked out of their own houses. So we asked Rawlings Blake a few questions about the bill--and some of her answers indicate that her bill still needs some work.

How significant a problem is noise in the city?

"I don't know the exact number, but I do know where there have been significant complaints and repeated complaints, they have been a real problem for neighbors and communities. Most of the people that either have written or came down to testify, it's usually where maybe kids that are in college or young people living on their own move into a residential neighborhood and want to keep the party going."

How loud do you have to be to be prosecuted under the public nuisance law?

"Right now we're using the Health Department standards. . . . But that being said, I'm more interested in not how loud it is just in general, but how loud it is away from the source. Some people have said, `I'm having a loud conversation and the meter is right in front of me and I'm over the limit.' Well, it's not a matter of in the room how loud it is, it's outside of the home, because if it's a certain amount of feet from the home, you're potentially impacting another family."

Who would make the decision that someone is being too loud?

"We're still working that out. We had the initial hearing, we're going to have some work sessions because we want to take a look at how noise is enforced around the country, so we can make sure that we are putting into place legislation that actually does what it's meant to do."

The Health Department said the police should enforce it and the police have said they don't have the equipment. So who's going to enforce the law?

"They don't have [the equipment] today because there's no reason for them to have it today. We will make sure that's it's enforceable. For example, in Seattle if you can hear noise from a music venue 50 feet away from the venue, or 50 feet away from anything, that is a violation. So a police can come, health inspectors, anyone can come, and if a venue is audible 50 feet away, then it's in violation. So you don't need special equipment as long as you have the sense of hearing."

You need two convictions in 24 months to be penalized under this law. What happens after you've been convicted twice?

"After you get convicted twice, if you're the owner your property can be padlocked [for up to a year], and if you're a tenant the owner is forced to evict you."

What happens to a property while it's closed? Who will keep people from breaking into it to steal or shoot up?

"It's still the owner's responsibility to do upkeep and all of those things. They're just not allowed to occupy it."

What happens after the year is up? Does the city own the property? Does the owner get the house back?

"As far as I know the owner gets the property back after the penalty phase is over."

What if you have a backyard barbecue once a year and play some music and one of your neighbors complains? Would the city be able to close your house?

"No. This isn't for backyard barbecues. It's not for an occasional loud argument between a husband and a wife. It's not for, you know, you got a new CD once and really liked it and turned it up loud. This is for chronic offenders. I think the problem for a lot of people is if you haven't experienced it, you don't know how disruptive it can be to your life. And if you have experienced it, you're desperate for some serious relief."

A lawn mower puts out 90 decibels. Can I mow my lawn?

"Of course."

Are you worried about displacing people and putting them into situations where they will be out on the street for a nuisance-law violation?

"They're already displaced in the sense that they're out of place in quiet communities where they don't fit. And everyone, whether you're young or old, should be responsible neighbors. Just as if a person was selling drugs or having a prostitution ring or gambling right out of their home, if they're using their house as basically a de facto club, there should be some remedy for neighbors as well."

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