At next week’s city council meeting, council will be asked to change the city’s sound ordnance. With little discussion or notice, city staff have added an item to the agenda that could have big implications for city planning and residential neighborhoods in Davis.
In a nutshell, the amendment would, as one person has put it, allow someone to stand in front of your house and blow an air horn for a minute or two every hour without violating the sound ordinance. This would be allowed because city staff have decided it is better to measure sound by averaging it over an hour, rather than use a simple measure like the maximum allowed sound, how the current ordinance works. A quick check on the web shows that two other college towns – Chico and San Luis Obispo – have existing sound ordinances that use the “maximum” sound standard. Others have found that most cities use the maximum allowed sound rather than an average.
And this makes sense. Using maximum allowable sounds – particularly during quiet periods like nighttime – eliminates repetitive loud noises like, to use an extreme example, pile drivers and other such concussive noises as the Chico ordinance notes. San Luis Obispo has sound levels for daytime hours that are meant to limit loud noises such as leaf blowers and the like.
Staff note that "...it is typical for urbanized cities in California to utilize hourly average noise levels." First, is Davis an “urban” environment, and 2) what other cities use average noise levels? Los Angeles and Sacramento use maximum noise levels in their noise ordinances. (To be fair, San Diego uses the average standard.) Although the Census Bureau lists us as “urban area” No. 48 in California, just below such urban wonderlands as Watsonville (No. 47), Madera (No. 46) and even Napa (No. 43), who in town thinks of Davis as an urban environment.
For twenty years Davis has lived with its current sound ordinance (as updated in 2005), which uses the “maximum” language. Staff justify the needed change – to just one section of the ordinance – by saying that they have “received inquiries related to noise and varying interpretations of the existing Noise Regulations.” Staff notes that the General Plan update anticipates a review and update of the whole sound ordinance, but for some reason they “feel” the need to change this section now.
In addition, staff state that no commission input is necessary. This is troubling. Commissions, particularly ones like the Planning Commission which has legal authority, are meant to hash out the pros and cons of neighborhood zoning and the general atmosphere of living in Davis. Shouldn’t changes to sound ordinances get a hearing in that commission? And not only do city staff want to bypass the commission process, they ask the council to “waive full reading” of the ordinance change and just approve what staff wants because they “feel” it is needed.
In my opinion this is not how good governance works. This needs more deliberation, particularly by the city’s commissions such as Planning or Parks and Rec. And to drop this amendment in an agenda on a Friday before a long holiday weekend invites the notion that maybe staff don’t want much discussion of this item. Just sayin’, you know?
Robert Canning is a retired clinical psychologist and lives in Old East Davis near the “much too noisy” railroad tracks. He is also treasurer of the Vanguard.