Noise Ordinances Being Struck Down Post-Tanner: The Problem of Decibels


As discussed in the last post, many localities are struggling after the Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion in Tanner v. City of Virginia Beach to adopt ordinances to comply with that decision. No longer can localities use a “reasonable person” standard in a criminal noise ordinance without risking a run-in with Tanner.

What can replace that maleable and useful standard?

As localities continue to struggle post-Tanner, many would say that noise decibel limits are the answer. They are plainly objective. However, it is not entirely clear that air pressure readings measured by noise meters is all that easier for the average person to understand than the “reasonable person” standard.

Writing a decibel-based noise ordinance is on the one hand very easy. Place decibel limits in zoning districts or locality-wide, perhaps with different standards for night versus daytime.

But adopting decibel limits by ordinance is a notoriously difficult line-drawing exercise. Why is 65 decibels a violation at 8:01 p.m but not at 7:59 p.m.? Why is a higher noise level appropriate in a commercial zone and not right next door in an office zone? A washing machine makes a noise quivalent to 75 decibels. A conversation can easily reach 65 decibels. But do you want to hear such a noise in your home as you try to sleep?

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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