Proposed Update To Arlington County’s Noise Control Ordinance

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The Arlington County Board is planning to hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed changes to the Noise Control Ordinance. According to the Arlington County website, the meeting is expected to take place sometime in the first quarter of 2013.  The current noise ordinance is found within Chapter 15 of the Arlington County Code and has been in place, relatively unchanged, since 1975.  The purpose of the noise ordinance is to regulate and establish expectations for the control of environmental noise in our community and limit its escalation.                                    

Plans to update the existing ordinance were first introduced at a series of three community meetings hosted by Arlington County, where interested parties including citizens, business owners and the development community had an opportunity to discuss the proposed recommendations for updating the ordinance.

The primary reason for the update was the removal of any reference to the “reasonable person standard,” which is language that was identified as unconstitutionally subjective by the Virginia Supreme Court in its 2009 decision, Tanner v. City of Virginia Beach, and the use of more clearly objective, quantifiable and defined measurement standards.  Under the new ordinance, all noise will be measured against a decibel (dB) standard which will vary depending on what type of noise is being regulated. For example, construction and special event noise will be limited to 90 dB, while the threshold for vehicular noise will be 70 to 90 dB.  A noise meter is required to determine many of the noise violations under the new ordinance.

The updated ordinance focuses on several common sources of noise throughout the county, including loud parties and gatherings, construction noise, animal noise and live entertainment. Construction noise in commercial and residential areas is of particular concern; especially pre-dawn construction, pile driving and clanging of metal parts in metal dumpsters (to name a few concerns referenced in the October 15, 2012 staff report to the county board). The new ordinance seeks to remedy some of these issues and bolster the requirements that developers and owners provide industry-standard sound mitigation solutions.

Some of the proposed changes to the ordinance include:

  • Civil penalties on violators after a warning is issued or posted on the premises.
  • Criminal penalties for violations would increase from $25 to not less than $100 or more than $2,500 upon conviction.
  • New methods to determine a noise violation that is above grade, or that occurs within multi-unit buildings. Learn more about the new measurement standards here.

http://building.arlingtonva.us/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Noise-Ordinance-UPDATED-significant-changes.pdf

  • Additional Exemptions are added for specific noise producing activities (i.e. band performances or practices, church bells, and athletic contests).
  • Clarity on the agencies and scope of work that are allowed exemptions to complete emergency repairs.
  • Enhanced prohibited acts to address issues such as loud music and animal noises.
  • Appeals process filed with Arlington County Community Planning, Housing and Development Department (CPHD) within five days of delivery of the citation.

The Arlington County Code Enforcement team from the CPHD is charged with enforcing the ordinance during regular hours, and after hours the Arlington County Police Department will be tasked with responding to noise complaints.

The proposed penalties are more severe under the new ordinance; however, it does provide that a warning must be issued before any citations or criminal charges apply and does introduce an appeals process. Under the new ordinance, violators would be subject to criminal and civil penalties for noise disturbances. When police officers witness the violation, they may issue a summons for a court appearance or arrest violators.  Upon conviction, the court may fine the violator not less than $100 dollars or more than $2,500 dollars. However, each day in violation may be considered a separate offense multiplying the penalties imposed on the violator.  The ordinance also introduces civil penalties, much like a traffic ticket that may be issued to the responsible parties associated with the noise violation. Civil penalties are imposed after a warning, and a violator may be fined up to $250 for the first violation and up to $500 for all violations that follow.

A “noise disturbance” is a defined by the new ordinance as an activity that exceeds the decibel limitations established for a zoning designation or that is produced by a motor vehicle.  In the past, the county board has issued special exceptions and site plan conditions to permit additional noise due to construction of a new building, or noise from live entertainment at bars and restaurants.  Such conditions generally permit the noise for a regulated period of time, such as certain times of day.  The county staff report dated October 15, 2012, suggests that the county is satisfied with the process of using special use permits to regulate live entertainment venues and that practice will likely continue.  Under the current ordinance, the county manager also has authority to issue exemptions to the ordinance upon request. This authority is extended in the new ordinance as well.

The proposal now before the Arlington County Board from county staff would authorize advertisement for a public hearing to discuss Amending, Reenacting and Recodifying Chapter 15 of the Arlington County Code, to be effective upon adoption.

Lauren K. Keenan is an associate at Bean, Kinney & Korman, P.C. in Arlington, Virginia, practicing in the areas of land use law and estate planning. She can be reached at 703.525.4000 or lkeenan@beankinney.com.