by Jeff Schweers

USA Today

November 16, 2010

MELBOURNE, Fla. — How much is too much noise?

An increasing number of U.S. cities are trying to answer that question, as growing downtowns bustling with night life raise noise to levels that have some residents ready to scream.

For more than a year, Merrie Meckley of Melbourne has been kept awake after midnight by the thumping bass and drums of the live band across the street at Matt’s Casbah, one of the city’s more popular clubs with an outdoor bar, dining and live music.

“When I can’t turn on the TV to drown out the sound, I call the police,” she said.

Her complaints, which in the past earned the club a code violation, now might fall on deaf ears.

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Last month, the Melbourne City Council created a Downtown Entertainment Noise District, which allows clubs and restaurants along the main drag to crank it up to 70 decibels until 1:30 a.m., up from 55 in the adjacent residential zone.

Many municipalities are making or considering similar changes as they try to keep residents happy without hurting business in a down economy. The Detroit suburbs of Royal Oak and Ferndale, Mich.; Lake Worth, Fla.; Mandeville, La. (north of New Orleans); and Salem, Ore., are among the most recent to have either voted on or begun exploring rules that let bars and restaurants in entertainment districts play music louder and later.

A normal conversation is around 55-60 decibels, said Linda Howarth, program manager for the Dangerous Decibels program at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore. A busy street corner is around 85 decibels, she said, and a rock concert is around 112 decibels, “the same as a chain saw.”

Howarth said physical damage begins at 85 decibels, but psychological damage and increased stress can result from prolonged exposure to lower noise levels.

Albany, N.Y.-based Noise Free America director and founder Ted Rueter said what the cities are doing is a misguided trend that will erode quality of life for downtown residents.

“City councils are equating noise with fun and tax revenue, but are ignoring the rights of downtown citizens,” Rueter said. “New urbanism is great,” he said, “but who wants to live downtown when they can’t get to sleep till 3 in the morning.”

Among other recent changes:

•Quincy, Mass., passed an ordinance in June setting the level at 75 decibels from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 65 from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., said Chris Walker, the city’s policy director.

•Scottsdale, Ariz., passed its first noise ordinance Sept. 28, making noise violations civil offenses rather than criminal, Neighborhood Resources director Raun Keagy said.