by Gary White
Lakeland (Florida) Ledger
July 9, 2006
Would you respond to this real-estate listing? “Beautiful home in noisy neighborhood.” Probably not. But even in Polk County, a place seemingly removed from urban commotion, quiet neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be.
Lawn services arrive shortly after sunrise, plying industrialsized mowers, edgers, weed whackers and leaf blowers on residential yards. Boom cars rumble down streets at all hours, disgorging bass-drenched sound at punishingly high volume. Car alarms erupt with regularity. And the expansion of interstate highways and toll roads brings highspeed traffic noise to the back fences of more and more homes.
For those younger than 30, the background din probably seems utterly normal, part of the natural environment, like the drone of mutated crickets. But older residents can recall an aurally gentler time.
“I grew up on a farm and mourn the loss of quiet peace that pervaded our countryside at dusk,” said Rita Beal, 58, of Kathleen. “But I guess I have officially arrived at old-fogeyville since the noise in my neighborhood never ends.”
Throughout much of America, quiet has become an increasingly rare commodity. The disappearance of silence is a consequence of an expanding population combined with an ever-growing roster of mechanized devices, said Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC), a Vermont-based non-profit organization with the motto, “Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves.”
“I think of noise as aural litter,” Blomberg said. “It’s audible trash. It’s usually the byproduct of something you’re doing ending up in somebody else’s yard, so to speak. What we need to do is the same thing that happened in the ’60s and ’70s with respect to litter.”
Blomberg said outdoor ambient sound was significantly lower as recently as the 1960s, before “an explosion of new noise sources” emerged, including leaf blowers, boom boxes, component car stereos, car alarms, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and nighttime jet flights.
Environmental noise detracts from our quality of life, but the costs go well beyond mere irritation, said Ted Rueter, director of Wisconsin-based Noise Free America. Studies, he said, have connected noise pollution with many medical ailments — from hearing loss to insomnia to murderous rage — not to mention declines in property values.
Rueter said quiet is the biggest motivating factor in people’s decisions about where to live and noise is the most common reason for leaving a neighborhood.
Many factors contribute to increased background noise in neighborhoods. Several Polk residents cited the rise of professional lawn services, whose striving for efficiency prompts early starting times and has made the gaspowered leaf blower ubiquitous.
While lawn mowers and weed trimmers can be hard to ignore, nothing seems to spark disdain like leaf blowers — devices worn on the back that produce hurricane-strength blasts through nozzles and are used to clear clippings from driveways and sidewalks.
The NPC rates leaf blowers at 95 to 105 decibels, and Blomberg said their high-pitched tone makes them seem even l ouder.
Los Angeles and many other cities have banned or restricted the use of leaf blowers. In response, Rueter said, Echo Manufacturing, a leading maker of lawn-care products, has a fulltime lobbyist who travels the country to argue against proposed restrictions.
While homeowners might use the old-fashioned and low-decibel approach — clearing pavement with a broom or a rake — lawn service owner Dave Perkins said those aren’t viable options for his company.
“When you mow a lawn, especially in a nice neighborhood, they expect you to clean the sidewalks of the grass that comes from the cut,” said Perkins, owner of Executive Property Management Services, Inc., which handles private and commercial lawns. “You can clear a full, twocar-length driveway in a matter of two minutes (with a blower), where if you had to sweep it, it would take you 20.”
Some anti-noise activists dispute that, citing a 1998 contest in which a California grandmother using a rake and a broom reportedly cleaned a patio nearly as fast and more thoroughly than a worker with a gas-powered blower.
Whereas noise is a mere byproduct with leaf blowers, it is the raison d’etre for “boom cars” — vehicles equipped with beefy sound systems that spew distorted, bottom-heavy music at extreme volume, usually with the windows down. Some boom car owners have seats removed to cram in speakers and sub-woofers, which produce low frequencies.
Rueter calls boom cars’ emissions “acoustic terrorism.” Manufacturers such as Sony and Prestige Audio market their car audio components with such phrases as “Disturb the peace” and “Put the over-40 set into cardiac arrest.”
Amelia Hogan said a vehicle passes about two blocks from her South Lakeland home every weekday around 5:30 p.m., its bottom-end music thumping so loudly it disturbs her even when she’s on the far side of the house with the windows down and the air conditioning on. “Every time I tell my husband, `I wish his speakers would blow up,’ ” said Hogan, 66.
Invasive noise is particularly irritating to Hogan, who said she has always been sensitive to loud sounds. She may suffer from vibroacoustic disease, a condition in which those exposed to intense noise can endure physical ailments such as heart palpitations and even strokes.
When Hogan was a teenager, car radios had just a few watts of power. These days, owners can install after-market systems powered by 1,000 watts or more, enough to produce 150 decibels — the equivalent of a 747 jet with its engines running and well above the human pain threshold of 120 decibels.
The Florida Legislature toughened the state noise ordinance last year, making it illegal for music to be heard more than 25 feet from a vehicle. But anti-noise advocates say the law is not enforced rigorously enough.
The Lakeland Police Department has issued 209 citations for vehicle noise violations so far in 2006, spokesman Jack Gillen said. Records show the Polk County Sheriff’s Office has issued 586 such citations since Jan. 1, 2005.
“I think that we enforce that law when we’re able to,” Gillen said. “Obviously we have marked police cars, and I think people who have a tendency to blast their stereo system also have a tendency to look harder for police, and by the time we’re close enough to possibly hear it, their music’s down.”
Judy Ellis, a Florida representative of Noise Free America, said the maximum fine of $68.50 is not a deterrent for someone who has shelled out big money for an amplifier and speakers. Ellis’ group is lobbying the Florida Legislature to increase the fine to $350 and make loud music a moving violation, contributing “points” to a driver’s record. Nationally, Noise Free America advocates a ban on subwoofers in vehicles.
OTHER VEHICULAR PROBLEMS
Boom cars are not the only vehicular noise source people find bothersome. Critics say car alarms, with their siren-like wails that carry for long distances, have lost any deterrent value and are merely a clamorous nuisance. The NPC cites cites an insurance industry study showing car alarms don’t reduce theft.
Motorcycles are also frequent targets of complaints. A motorcycle straight from the factory is loud enough — legally emitting about 80 decibels — but a chopper can become a sonic assault vehicle when its muffler is altered or removed.
Florida prohibits any change to the exhaust system of a vehicle that makes it louder. Still, there is a long tradition of bikers removing mufflers, an action some riders defend with the slogan, “Loud pipes save lives.”
“There’s not a shred of evidence to that effect,” Rueter said. “It’s illegal in all 50 states, (but) it is never enforced. I wish the cops would just go and start arresting these people.”
Records show the sheriff’s office has issued 25 tickets for motor noise violations (including those by cars) since Jan. 1, 2005 — or about 4 percent of the total issued for loud music.
A POLITICAL LOBBY
Environmental noise is a lot like the weather: Many people talk about it, but no one seems to do much about it.
Blomberg is trying to change that. He founded the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse a decade ago in response to a streetsweeper that awakened him at 4 a.m. at his home of Montpelier, Vt. Having convinced the city to end the practice, he began thinking nationally.
So far, he admits, the drive for quieter neighborhoods has not coalesced into a large political movement.
“I think it’s because most people in the general public assume . . . noise is the cost of living in a technological world,” Blomberg said. “It’s not that people don’t care about it, it’s that they don’t know there are solutions.”
Blomberg said the best potential for making America quieter in the short term involves market solutions, such as electric and battery-powered lawn equipment to replace gas-powered models.
Noise Free America, started by Rueter five years ago, advocates a federal office devoted to controlling noise pollution. Congress passed the Noise Control Act in 1972, creating the Office of Noise Abatement and Control inside the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Reagan Administration later eliminated its funding.
NFA has lobbied for the Quiet Communities Act, which would restore funding to the office, but Rueter admits the measure hasn’t yet drawn much congressional support.
Blomberg said if everyone who is bothered by noise got involved, they could form a bloc so large politicians would be unable to ignore them.
“I think what has changed in the last 10 years is I’ve seen much more interest in controlling noise pollution,” Blomberg said. “I think people are starting to realize they don’t want to move to the next suburb out but would like quiet where they live.”
SO WHAT IF THERE’S NOISE?
Just what is lost when silence recedes from our world? That isn’t merely an abstract question for Bob Sullivan, president of Historic Bok Sanctuary in Lake Wales.
Sullivan describes quiet as the “stock-in-trade” of the 77-year-old park, which features elaborate gardens and a carillon tower set atop one of Florida’s highest points. The label “sanctuary” seems appropriate, for the atmosphere at the park is hushed and tranquil.
Preserving aural naturalism is a major element of Sullivan’s agenda. Bok officials have lobbied local governments to limit development around the park, creating a sonic buffer zone.
Sullivan said visitors often mention the absence of mechanical noise as part of the park’s appeal.
“Some say, `I come here and I can hear myself think and I leave refreshed,’ ” he said. “Others may not understand it as an absence of noise, but they speak of the peace and quiet and the ability to listen and hear the birds.”
What is the cost of having that inner voice drowned out so much of the time? That’s a question to ponder — if you can find a quiet moment.