by Sandra Pedicini

Orlando Sentinel

November 5, 2006

Life is getting louder.

We’re surrounded by noise-making gadgets — leaf-blowers, car alarms, booming car stereos. Once primarily the domain of big cities, noise is becoming a problem even in the suburbs and rural areas. Critics say it’s ruining our quality of life, even driving us indoors.

Amid hundreds of complaints, cities, counties and states are cracking down. And rather than writing generic rules urging residents and businesses to shush, they are setting specific limits to how much noise is too much. Just last week, Lake Mary beefed up its decades-old noise ordinance by establishing specific decibel limits.

The city joined a growing chorus of governments setting more definable limits on certain types of sound. For example:

Like feeling the thump of bass from your car stereo? State law now says it cannot be heard plainly from 25 feet away.

Prefer making music at home? In many communities, the sound cannot register above 55 to 60 decibels when heard from your neighbor’s property. That’s about the level of a normal conversation.

Got a barking dog? If you live in places like Mount Dora, Fido cannot bother your neighbor for more than five minutes.

Adding onto your house? Hammer away, but only until 9 or 10 p.m. in many areas.

Although the laws are often most strict in residential neighborhoods, commercial districts are coming under scrutiny, as well. Then, there are the areas where homes and businesses mix. Take downtown Mount Dora, which passed a noise ordinance a few months ago.

“It’s a vibrant, living downtown,” said police Lt. Roger Chilton, and that means music and festivities. But a few weeks ago, the trendy downtown restaurant Pisces Rising got slapped with a $50 fine after singer and guitarist “Dangerous Dave” Merrill’s performance went slightly over the 75-decibel limit.

Pisces Rising owner Anney Winters wasn’t happy about the fine, but she conceded the new rules are fair because at least they spell out exactly how much sound is legal — and how much is not.

“I got a ticket. I paid it. I’m doing my best not to get another one,” said Winters, who has counseled the musicians who play on weekends to keep the noise under control.

The city is taking its new ordinance seriously, Chilton said, because “noise is something that affects everybody’s quality of life.”

Anti-noise groups have sprung up throughout the country, decrying what they say are the negative effects of too much noise, such as increased stress and less friendly neighborhoods. They are lobbying for government crackdown.

“I think it hurts the sense of community. I think it hurts the sense of neighborliness,” said Ted Rueter of Noise Free America.

In a neighborhood plagued by noise, he said, “I think you’re less likely to throw around a football with your kid. . . . I think it drives people inside.”

The anti-noise activists blame a proliferation of increasingly loud gadgets, from leaf blowers to stereos, and a larger societal problem — a lack of concern for neighbors.

Lori Bosse of Winter Springs agrees. Last year, she praised city commissioners for toughening the noise ordinance. She spent years battling a neighbor who had dozens of barking dogs and a son who drove a noisy all-terrain vehicle.

“It’s not the norm to be considerate anymore,” Bosse said.

While some communities have targeted lawn equipment, such as older, noisier leaf blowers, little attention is paid by many others to people simply maintaining their lawns. Lake Mary, for example, decided to exempt most lawn equipment from its new decibel limits.

Some of Central Florida’s most notorious noise problems include Daytona Beach’s near-constant struggle to quiet the din of motorcycles during Bike Week; battles between residents and bars playing loud music, such as Capt. Garo’s Redfish Inn in Cocoa; the roar of airboats in rural areas; and even the bells of a DeLand monastery that gave some of its neighbors unholy headaches.

Noise from “boom cars” prompted Orlando and later the state Legislature to take action. A tough state law went into effect last year ruling that drivers could be ticketed for playing stereos loud enough to be plainly heard from 25 feet away.

Police departments get hundreds of noise complaints a year, many called in anonymously. And many problems, police say, can be taken care of with a simple warning.

But if the noise continues, officials say, clearly defined standards can make it easier for them to prove there’s a problem and do something about it.

Setting decibel limits also can help in situations where neighbors are feuding and one keeps turning another in, Lake Mary Police Chief Richard Beary said.

An officer can say, “Here is the meter, there is no problem here,” Beary said.

In Mount Dora, Winters said most of the complaints about her restaurant have come from one neighbor, “whose mission it is to monitor my restaurant.”

But noise experts warn that relying too heavily on decibel limits can be problematic, particularly if there aren’t enough machines to measure the noise or enough people trained on them. And limits set too high can protect the person making the noise, instead of the person trying to escape from it, said Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Vermont.

Mount Dora police have been busily measuring decibels, training about 20 full-time officers how to use about a dozen machines the department purchased.

That’s in contrast to Winter Springs, which last year changed its noise ordinance to establish decibel levels. The police department’s code-enforcement division has one machine to measure sound, and one person trained to use it. He generally works during the day Monday through Friday, when many residents are at work.

Although the department has looked into more than 800 problems involving noise this year, Capt. Glenn Tolleson has used the meter only a few times and no one has been fined for violating the city’s decibel-limit rule, though some may have been fined under state laws, such as the one monitoring noise from stereos.

Lake Mary also plans to buy decibel readers, though not for every patrol car.

“We’ll just have to play it by ear,” City Manager John Litton said.