by Rob Zaleski

The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)

February 13, 2007

Deafening train whistles, drunks spilling onto the sidewalks at bar time, rowdy behavior on King Street.

Downtown Madison can be a rather noisy place, says Bert Stitt, former president of Capitol Neighborhoods Inc.

“I’m not saying the noise levels have gone up,” says Stitt, who’s lived downtown for 27 years and says the noise doesn’t bother him personally.

“I’m saying that sensitivity to it has gone up. More and more people are complaining about it – especially the train whistles. And with just cause, frankly.”

But it’s not just downtown Madison residents who say they’ve had enough. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, citizens across the country list noise as the No. 1 complaint about their neighborhoods, with some saying it’s a chief factor in their decision to move elsewhere.

Noise experts say there are many reasons for the increasing din: our burgeoning population, urban sprawl, our growing reliance on noisy gadgets, inadequate noise ordinances, and a quadrupling of the number of vehicles on the roads in the last two decades.

Oh yes, and for those unfortunate enough to live directly under flight paths, bigger and busier airports.

Even outdoor appliances like leaf blowers, chain saws and power lawn mowers are rattling nerves and pitting neighbor against neighbor.

How loud is too loud? A trip around Madison with a decibel meter illustrates the problem quickly.

A city ordinance limits noise to 65 decibels, but it only applies to stationary noise, such as that coming from air conditioners and factories. However, you can get readings in that range on many city streets. Readings taken by The Capital Times showed noise levels of 66 decibels at the intersection of Monroe and Harrison streets at midday and 75 at rush hour.

The intersection of Williamson and Livingston streets was about the same, and at the intersection of University Avenue and Midvale Boulevard, rush-hour noise levels registered 80 decibels.

That’s just five decibels shy of what experts say can cause long-term hearing damage over time.

But go down the quiet (and pricey) streets near the Maple Bluff Country Club during the day, and the noise level is 51, about the same as a mild rainfall.

The big question in all this, of course, is what qualifies as noise pollution? Or, more to the point, how loud is too loud?

“If you have to raise your voice to be heard, it’s too loud,” says Colleen Moore, a noise expert and psychology professor at the UW-Madison.

Madison audiologist Veronica Heide says continual exposure to 85 decibels of noise – the level on a busy street – may cause gradual but permanent hearing loss. So it’s hardly surprising, she says, that many Baby Boomers who’ve been attending rock concerts – where peak noise levels can reach 140 decibels – since the 1960s are experiencing hearing problems.

But even if you don’t like to stand near the speakers, the noise from everyday items can reach harmful levels. Leaf blowers run about 105 decibels and car alarms are at 120, according to noise experts.

In Madison, building inspectors handle complaints of stationary noise, while police address complaints of behavioral noise, such as loud music, dogs and practically everything else. In either case, the fine for first-time violators is $172.

Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer points out that police have wide latitude to determine what’s a reasonable level of noise, and Madison Police Lt. Joe Balles agrees.

“It’s a very subjective enforcement decision that we make,” he says.

Verveer admits that the city’s approach to dealing with noise is rather disjointed.

“There’s no central office or central agency that deals with noise issues,” he says. “But, in a way, I think that’s what alderpersons are for – to be the ombudsmen to try to help their constituents with this critical quality of life issue.”

Anti-noise activist Ted Rueter acknowledges that there’s a segment of society – mostly young people, he surmises – that actually enjoys noise. Some of those people have sent him nasty emails, referring to his group as “whiners” and “noise Nazis.” And they’re outraged that they’re being told to conform to other people’s standards.

Just like smoking?┬áThe UW’s Moore likens the debate to the one over smoking.

“If somebody wants to seal up their home and crank their stereo up, that’s fine,” says Moore, whose 2003 book “Silent Scourge: Children, Pollution and Why Scientists Disagree,” includes a chapter on the health effects of noise pollution on children.

“But you don’t have to expose me to it. And if I’m right next door, and it’s at certain hours of the day and the boom-ba-boom is vibrating into my home, why should I be subjected to something that might harm me?”

Rueter, for his part, agrees that there’s such a thing as freedom of expression.

But there is no right, he says, to disturb the peace.

“There are laws against that in every community,” notes Rueter, who recently moved to a different neighborhood in Beloit because of a neighbor’s refusal to hush his yapping dog. Moreover, for anyone to suggest that noise pollution is a minor issue is absolute hogwash, he says.

“It’s certainly not a minor issue in terms of quality of life or in terms of health. It’s bad for your hearing, it’s bad for your heart, it’s bad in terms of stress and sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue,” he says.

Although some medical experts say it’s extremely difficult to establish cause and effect between sounds and health risks, Rueter says there are all sorts of studies to back up his claims.

One such report, published in the July-August 2002 issue of Archives of Environmental Health, said loud noise “may elevate systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and heart rate, thus producing both acute and chronic health effects.”

Moore, whose research has focused on transportation noise, says children who live close to busy highways or airport flight paths often have higher stress hormones and lower reading test scores.

For that reason, she recommends parents think twice before buying or renting a home that backs up to a busy road, even though the homes are often much cheaper.

“I’d also recommend that parents pick a neighborhood where the school is in a relatively quiet area,” she says.

Rueter says Americans tend to forget that in 1972 Congress was so concerned about rising noise levels that it passed the Noise Control Act, which empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to determine noise limits to protect the public health and welfare. For a number of years, the EPA even had its representatives visit schools to educate students about the dangers of excessive noise.

But those efforts came to a halt in 1982 when the Reagan Administration abruptly cut funding for the EPA program and declared that henceforth noise pollution would be regulated by state and local governments. And virtually nothing has been done since, Rueter says.

Police priorities:┬áMike Hanson, a spokesman for the Madison Police Department, says it’s true that noise complaints are a fairly low priority for the department. That’s not to say they aren’t taken seriously, he says.

“But, to be honest, a complaint for a loud party downtown on a Saturday night at bar time, officers aren’t going to be running over there,” he adds.

Hanson says loud music and parties are the most common noise complaints, followed by barking dogs. After that, it’s all over the map.

Two weeks ago, for example, the department got a late-night complaint of a couple having loud sex in an apartment on Hammersley Road on the west side. By the time an officer responded, about a half-hour after the call, the couple apparently had fallen asleep, Hanson says.

Although complaints of noise and crime in the King Street area got a lot of attention last summer, a check of police department records shows that noise complaints in Madison have actually declined the last few years. There were 5,825 complaints in 2003, 5,520 in 2004, 5,393 in 2005 and 5,266 last year.

Rueter suggests a big reason for the decline is that people realize that noise complaints are a low priority, so they don’t bother to call them in anymore.

“I would agree with that,” says the police department’s Balles.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz says in his opinion Madison doesn’t have a serious noise problem but acknowledges there are “pockets” of concern.

“The most famous of those, of course, is the rail corridor where the whistle restrictions now are off. I’m hearing quite a bit from people who live downtown and are concerned about that,” he says.

A few years ago, Cieslewicz says, the city also got a number of complaints about truck noise at the Schoep’s Ice Cream factory on the near east side, but those have since subsided.

“So I wouldn’t call noise a minor issue, because for people who are near one of these places it’s a real concern,” the mayor says. “But citywide, it’s not something I hear too much about.”

Whatever the case, Hanson says officers do try to “problem-solve” before issuing a citation.

“Instead of writing ticket after ticket, we’ll contact the individual, let them know this is a serious issue and that if they don’t remedy it on their own, we will resort to tickets,” he says.

Rueter says he’s all for being reasonable, but argues that the problem won’t go away until the troublemakers understand that excessive noise won’t be tolerated. People need to get the message, he says, that there’s no constitutional right to make loud noise.

“But we do have a right to live in peace and harmony.”