by Rick Armon
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
December 26, 2003
James Kaufmann is simply looking for a little peace and quiet.
But everywhere he turns, he says he finds unwanted noise. Boom boxes. Loud car stereos. Loud mufflers. All assaulting his ears.
“I would trade having someone slam my head against the concrete once a month and have it done and over with rather than this constant assault,” said Kaufmann, 36, a pianist who teaches at the State University College at Brockport and lives in the city’s 19th Ward neighborhood.
Unhappy with what he calls lax attention to noise pollution in the city, the soft-spoken Kaufmann founded the Rochester Soundscape Society last year. And now he is one of several people who is leading an offensive on city officials, urging them to strengthen the city’s noise law and to have police officers pay more attention to the violation. Take on noise and it may help reduce other more serious crimes in the future, they argue.
Prompted by those citizen complaints, Rochester officials are re-examining the noise law here. But they caution that the city already has a tough law, with a first offense calling for a mandatory $100 fine. Also, Rochester isn’t unreasonably noisy and police cannot focus on noise at the expense of fighting violent crime, they say.
“In the past year we have tried to aggressively deal with this problem, to a point of taking offending vehicles into our custody,” said Sgt. Carlos Garcia, a police spokesman. “However … the community as a whole needs to be aware of this problem and become more sensitive to the level of noise they are creating, since I do not think anyone thinks we will ‘arrest’ our way out of this problem.”
Unwanted noise may be an annoyance and a crime, but it’s also a health issue, according to the World Health Organization. Some people are more sensitive to low-frequency sounds. And prolonged exposure to chronic noise is thought to contribute to hypertension and heart disease and may impair mental health, the group says.
With that in mind, noise pollution is quickly becoming a major quality-of-life issue across the globe – from whole continents to major cities to tiny towns. And it seems to be symptomatic of the times we live in as sound, light, wildlife and neighbors encroach on what people tend to think of as personal space.
Worried that Europe is too noisy, the European Union has decreed that member countries must draft plans by July 2008 to limit noise and is trying to map noise levels continentwide in major cities. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently created “Operation Silent Night,” an effort to reduce noise in 25 city neighborhoods. And Atherton, a tiny California town with a population of 7,194, debated earlier this year whether the sounds of skateboards violate the town’s noise ordinance. The town ultimately decided no.
It was just a matter of time before citizens and communities began paying more serious attention to noise, said Les Blomberg, executive director of the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt.
Most noise laws were written in the 1980s, when the Environmental Protection Agency operated its now-defunct noise bureau. Since then, new noises, such as car alarms and leaf blowers, have popped up. Portable radios are more powerful. Bass, the low-pitched tone that provides the rumbling boom-boom sound, is popular in today’s rap and dance music. And it’s more affordable to transform a car into a rolling stereo.
“Our ability to amplify noises has increased significantly,” said Blomberg, whose group was founded in 1996.
Another major reason for the noise pollution movement, he added, is these noises are invading the suburbs and “middle-class people can no longer be guaranteed of quiet.”
Locally, that theory is being played out in a highly public way in Chili, where the story about neighbors battling over the legality of a private dirt bike track has received extensive media coverage. The town even created a noise ordinance after being pressed by neighbors irritated by the whining buzz of dirt bikes.
The anti-noise movement is really in its infancy, considering airplanes and cars have been around for only about 100 years, Blomberg said.
“I see hope,” he said. “You’re trying to change a 100-year trend and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
One man’s noise …
Not that everyone thinks noise is bad, however. Many motorcyclists enjoy the roar of their engines and many teens transform their vehicles into “boom cars” – the derogatory term used to describe vehicles with massive stereo systems.
“One man’s tormenting noise can be another man’s music,” said Richard Hannon, an assistant to Mayor William A. Johnson Jr. and a member of the informal committee looking at noise in Rochester.
Just as kids in the 1950s and 1960s tried to have the fastest car in the neighborhood, many of today’s teens try to have the loudest, said Jeff Waasdorp, 31, owner of The Installation Shop LLC, which installs custom stereo systems in vehicles at various sites in the county.
“That’s the generation,” he said. “It’ll change and the next generation will try something else.”
Noise Free America’s Web site (www.noisefree.org) has a page dedicated to “I Like Noise” – unedited, often angry e-mails directed at the group. Some are reasonable in their arguments. Some are just profane.
One of the more rational e-mails is from Bob Wyman, a 49-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., resident and motorcycle enthusiast. The efforts of groups such as Noise Free America are totally unrealistic, he said when contacted by the Democrat and Chronicle.
“We rely on things that make noise to survive,” said Wyman, who added that he hears highway and railroad noise from his home. “We live in a society full of noise.”
He also believes people have a right to make a little noise – as long as they are not intentionally torturing someone.
“I’m a firm believer in the Bill of Rights,” he said. “I have a bumper sticker that says, ‘Ignore your rights and they’ll go away.’”
His advice for anti-noise advocates is: “Get a life. Find something more constructive to do if you have the time to mess with that.”
Waasdorp questions whether the noise pollution issue is overblown.
“I don’t really see it as that big of a problem,” he said. “I think there are more important things for (police) to focus on.”
‘It ruins your life’
But there isn’t a higher priority for someone who says they are assaulted by noise.
“It ruins your life,” said Carol Brown, 60, who lives in the 19th Ward and has joined the Rochester Soundscape Society.
She said some of her neighbors began playing their music too loudly and that created a rotten situation for her. First of all, she felt uncomfortable asking them to turn down the music. Then, she felt sick to her stomach when she first called the police on them.
She didn’t want to go outside to work in her yard and she didn’t want to open her windows. She even started staying in a hotel when the music became unbearable for her.
“I’m paying a mortgage and own a piece of property,” said Brown, who added that the noise problem has gotten better. “I should be able to live happily. I don’t care what you play but don’t force it on me.”
Last year, Noise Free America awarded Rochester the group’s “Noisy Dozen” award for September, citing the city’s “dismal failure” to address the problem of loud car stereos. Following that distinction, Rochester changed its law last year to allow police to use depositions from residents to file noise complaints. Before, police couldn’t write citations unless they witnessed the violation.
But city officials dispute that noise is a rampant problem in Rochester.
“I don’t think we’re any noisier than any other city our size,” said Linda Kingsley, the city corporation counsel.
Rochester’s noise law, which is eight pages long, is tough, she said. The law bars excessive noise, which is defined as: “Any sound which endangers or injures the safety or health of humans or animals or annoys or disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivity or endangers or injures personal or real property.”
A first offense carries a fine of $100. A second and third offense result in fines of $200 and $300, respectively.
Police are trying to deal with noise pollution, Garcia said.
“While our officers will do everything within their power to enforce such ordinances, Mr. Kaufmann and the rest of our community need to understand that they are busy taking very violent criminals off our streets on a daily basis, as was the case this week with the arrest of some very violent gang members,” he said.
But Rochester police don’t take noise crimes seriously, Kaufmann said. City police issued 609 noise citations last year, he said. In the first 10 months of 2003, police issued 715 noise citations – a figure he considers unimpressive, considering there are about 700 officers and a city population of 219,000.
“Statistically, it looks like tokenism,” he said, adding that he would like to see each officer write one noise citation a day. “People know they can assault neighborhoods with sound-generating devices and the chances of getting caught are just 1 in 100,000.”