Amended Berkeley Noise Ordinance Doesn’t Please Everyone

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:51:00 AM

Although the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an amendment to the city’s existing noise ordinance more than two weeks ago, a small group of people is getting ready to oppose some of the changes at the Dec. 8 meeting where councilmembers are scheduled to confirm their decision.  

While the amendment will allow nightclubs, open-air festivals and other venues to exceed sound limits if they obtain the proper permits from the city’s zoning board, it will also make it easier for city staff to impose restrictions, giving more leeway to Health and Human Services to measure sound decibels and respond to complaints.  

The amendment’s most recent opponent includes one councilmember who originally voted for it. 

District 4 Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who represents the downtown area, said that he was planning to vote against the changes Tuesday. 

The reasons, he said, were plenty. 

“I first voted for the ordinance because I thought it was an improvement over our existing noise ordinance, because it would be easier for the ordinance to be enforced,” Arreguín said Wednesday. “I am concerned that some of the changes give city staff the discretion to determine that it’s economically or technically infeasible for the person violating the ordinance—whether it be the property owner or the tenant—to mitigate the problem, and then they don’t have to do anything about it.” 

Moreover, Arreguin argued, the staff decision cannot be appealed. 

“It’s a big loophole,” he said. “That could really enable businesses in Berkeley to violate the ordinance. We need to balance our night life with our quality of life. This ordinance is tipped in the direction of favoring businesses instead of residents.” 

City Noise Control Officer Manuel Ramirez said music venue operators and nightclub operators in downtown Berkeley had requested that city officials loosen the decibel limits on the outdated noise ordinance to help with business, following which the City Council asked the city manager to recommend how the noise ordinance could be modified to improve development. 

“It’s going to give commercial businesses the flexibility to raise the ambient or standard noise levels by five decibels with the proper permit,” Ramirez said. “The ordinance hasn’t been amended since 1982. That’s quite a long time. We have had some challenges in administering some of these laws and processes that are not used anymore. The current ordinance could essentially prevent establishments from coming in or shut them down.” 

In response to Arreguin’s concern about mitigation, Ramirez said the city was working on implementing some standards. 

“There are instances when we need to have some discretion,” he said. “These are extremely rare and won’t be used frequently.” 

Arreguin contended that five decibels was “still pretty loud.” 

“What about the people living next door?” he asked. 

Lawrence Rosenbaum, a member of the Bay Area Ministries, an Oakland-based Evangelical Christian ministry that periodically sermonizes at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, said that he worried that the changes might affect First Amendment activities. 

“For the first time, amplified sound permits will be required for all amplification, including bullhorn use by labor unions and protest groups,” he said. “They snuck these things upon us. They have given Environmental Health a lot of freedom but it’s hard to know what it’s going to do to us.” 

Rosenbaum said he was concerned that while the current ordinance required a written warning of a noise violation and allowed 15 minutes to correct it before getting arrested, the new ordinance would only give a verbal warning. 

“They still do get a warning before being cited,” said Ramirez. “As long as they follow the law it shouldn’t be a problem.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the Telegraph Avenue area, called the 15-minute window a waste of time. 

“That means if somebody is getting away with breaking the law, then staff has to wait there watching them break the law,” he said. “It’s a cumbersome procedure. What are you going to do with all the time standing there?” 

Worthington added that, while the updated ordinance wasn’t perfect, it would clear away bureaucratic obstacles.  

“Right now, even if you get someone’s attention, you don’t get enforcement,” he said. “I am more concerned about getting enforcement than the exact details.” 

Michael Kelly, chair of the Panoramic Hill Association, who showed up at the last council meeting with his neighbors and expressed concern about an increase in amplified sound limits, said Wednesday that he still had lingering doubts about parts of the ordinance. 

“We understand after talking to city staff that this increase of 15 decibels from 10 decibels above the ambient noise level will be for events on public property only, but in the big picture, we are always concerned about noise,” he said. “For those of us who live in the East Bay hills, if you can see something making noise, you can hear it. We are not happy with the amendment.” 

Kelly said he would either write a letter or show up at the council meeting to discuss the issue. 

The City Council will meet at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 8, at the Old City Hall Chambers, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.