by Laura Lane

Bloomington Herald-Times

June 29, 2013

Geoff Keller spent 40 years traveling North America, recording the faint, peaceful sounds of nature for Cornell University research. But too often, noise pollution — a jet passing low, the whir of a string trimmer, a faulty muffler — interfered.

“Seems like there was always an airplane, a chain saw, a loud vehicle or something that messed up the recordings,” said the now-retired Brown County resident, who admits being “hypersensitive” to loud sounds.

Seven years ago, he sought out a quiet existence in rural Brown County. But before long, he noticed loud noises in the town of Nashville that he and others say detract from the tranquility of the artist colony that is often called Peaceful Valley.

He supported the town’s new noise ordinance, enacted in the fall of 2012. Its stated purpose: To prohibit excessive, annoying or distracting noise that disturbs the quiet and normal functioning of the town; that startles, threatens, frightens or intimidates “individuals or animals”; or projects a negative image of the town or adversely affects people who use hearing aids.

The town’s six full-time town marshals use their own judgment to determine what level of noise violates the law and justifies a citation and $50 fine. The town can’t afford to arm police with decibel-measuring devices, and Chief Deputy Marshal Ben Seastrom said that with one position open and one deputy away at training, resources are stretched.

Noise will take a back seat to crime and public safety, he said, although officers do cite drivers who go out of their way to create noise that aggravates passers-by. “If a person is parked at a light and is revving the engine and it’s loud and obnoxious, that will definitely get them a traffic stop,” he said.

Because much of the noise in town is attributed to motorcycles that are altered to be louder, the ordinance includes a provision addressing that. “It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a truck, motor vehicle, motorcycle or motorized bicycle, which causes noise as a result of a defective or modified exhaust system or as a result of rapid acceleration, de-acceleration, engine revving or cause tire squeal, sliding or skidding.”

Since the law passed, Keller has grown increasingly upset because he doesn’t think enforcement to restrict modified motorcycle mufflers and booming bass car stereos is a priority, even though a survey he conducted of local merchants indicates that about 40 percent Nashville shopkeepers think the noise bothers customers and may be keeping some tourists from visiting the town.

“I went from shop to shop, gallery to gallery, and found out exactly how many business owners and managers objected to all of the loud motorcycles that descend upon Nashville every weekend with nice weather,” Keller said. “As it turned out, there are a lot of them. I thought I might be the only one with this concern, but there are many.”

During the May 18 town council meeting, he presented 71 questionnaires filled out by business owners and managers representing 57 downtown businesses detailing their concern about excessive noise. Town Council President Bob Kirlin said then the town doesn’t have funds to hire additional officers to enforce the ordinance.

Council Vice President Charles “Buzz” King said the noise issue is a difficult topic to address. But he said it’s important to strike a balance where visitors to the town all feel welcome and can experience the amenities of the small-town artist community.

“The truth is, it’s a small percentage of our visitors on motorcycles that have loud exhaust and de-tuned engines, and it does worry some of our older visitors and those with small children, and it makes it hard to hear the person you are talking to walking down the street,” King said. “All we are after are the ones with loud engines and modified mufflers. No one should be afraid to ride their motorcycles here, as long as they comply with the law.”

Rosemary Saurer has lived in Nashville 40 years. She owns Calvin Place and rents space to seven shops. She often comes into town early in the morning to work in the garden at her business property, then goes home. She was unaware of the noise problem, which is compounded on weekends when tourists flock to town.

One Saturday, she joined Keller on the liar’s bench outside the Brown County Courthouse, They counted loud cars, trucks and motorcycles that passed through the town stoplight. It was Saurer’s first time; Keller has planted himself on the bench two hours on summer weekends, last year and again this year, documenting noisy vehicles and altered mufflers. He has invested 27 hours thus far.

“It’s up 38 percent from this time last year,” he reported. “It’s about one every 31 seconds.”

Saurer said she was shocked at the volume of noise in town she heard there on the bench. “I was not just taken aback, I was appalled. I did not recognize the town I’ve lived in 40 years. It’s a Nashville I’ve never seen.”

She has talked to merchants and to those she rents space to gauge their concern. “Most of them say it is a problem, and they are annoyed. It seems there is a correlation to increased noise and decreased number of people on the street.”

She said loud sounds echo through the town, which sits in a valley. “It’s like a little canyon, four blocks long and two blocks wide, like an outdoor mall almost. When you’re in shops with the doors closed, there’s some protection from that sound,” Saurer said. “But visitors who are walking up and down Van Buren Street, they can’t hear each other talk.”

Keller has established a group called The Friends of Peaceful Valley, which has paid for five ads in the weekly Brown County Democrat newspaper. They depict people reacting to loud noises, and encourage citizens to report their concerns to town officials and ask that the anti-noise law be enforced.

“When I ask people why they come to Nashville, they say it’s to get away, to escape, to just walk around and relax,” Saurer said. ‘We need to remember that.”