Public Comment

Say What? Amend the Guidelines

By Carol Denney
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 06:36:00 PM

The City of Berkeley’s community noise guidelines need an amendment; more than 70 local businesses and residents have signed a petition made necessary by its omission. 

The current community noise guidelines, even as recently amended, never anticipated that city staff would place a sound source closer to a citizen’s residence than the point of its measurement for compliance with permissible levels (50 feet). 

There’s little point in measuring a decibel level a full 35 feet further back than someone has to experience it to find out whether it exceeds requirements. The organizers of the International Food Festival conceded on Friday, June 19, at a meeting with the staff of the Department of Environmental Health, that the largest amplified stage will be 15 feet from some residential apartment windows. 

People in mixed-use neighborhoods can expect 10 full decibel levels over ambient sound for any amplified sound stage, which during a festival puts them within five decibel points of permanent hearing damage levels for hours on end by design, and affirms, by the simple mathematics, that people unfortunate enough to be situated closer to the amplification than its point of measurement will be at serious risk of permanent hearing loss as well as other health effects such as hypertension, heart disease, and many other conditions ably noted on the City of Berkeley’s website. 

The placement of such stages puts the nearby apartment dwellers at unnecessary risk, but also unnecessarily pits residents and merchants against each other in defiance of some thoughtfully written guidelines. 

It is safe to suggest that this omission exists because those who created the guidelines would ordinarily have considered such a stage placement inappropriate. Given its omission, however, and the growing segment of Berkeley’s population living in mixed-use settings, it is time to add an amendment protecting people from having amplified stages placed closer to their residences than the 50 feet at which decibels are officially measured. 

The most telling part of the guidelines is the provision that no outdoor stage should point directly at anyone’s home: “speakers for sound amplification equipment shall be directed, to the extent feasible, toward open or unoccupied space and away from residentially occupied property.” This would seem to clarify the intent of the guidelines—to avoid directly impacting residents with potentially health-threatening conditions. 

The Berkeley City Council could amend the currently guidelines to clarify the point of placement, saying simply that it should never be closer to a resident’s home than its point of measurement. Let’s enjoy our festivals and help our businesses without ruining our hearing and our health. 


Carol Denney is a Berkeley musician and activist.