Energy & Environment

The Ruckus Over Racket

It is overstating the case to cast aggravating nuisances such as grating noise and glaring lights as another form of `pollution.'
by | September 2001

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

American cities are noisier than ever. The roar of traffic is getting worse. Residents run snow blowers, leaf blowers and jet skis, all of which create a racket. Teenagers are cruising streets with boom boxes or letting their car stereos blare. So it's predictable that mayors and city councilors are eager to do something about "noise pollution" when the incessant din makes their constituents cranky.

Nor is it surprising that the New York Legislature has approved a law to curb "light pollution." In this case, it's from outdoor floodlights that obscure nighttime stars and shine through bedroom windows. All over the nation, residents are complaining more loudly than ever about grating noise and glaring lights that disturb the peace and quiet. Too many cities and suburbs are getting to be unpleasant places to live.

It's likely that the rumble and dazzle of urbanized society cost many residents sleep and may even make life unhealthier. But alarmists overstate the case when they equate an aggravating nuisance with pollution of the environment. State and local officials promise too much when they profess that government can regulate thoughtlessness away the same way it controls contaminants that industry releases into the air or into streams and groundwater.

With the best of intentions, environmental policy makers have all too often made the mistake of promising that government can clean up pollutants to the last drop just by imposing regulations. Since the early 1970s, federal and state laws have brought the most obvious industrial polluters to heel, but officials are still figuring out how to apply the fine print to farms, dry cleaners, auto body shops, golf courses and homes. The task has taken longer than anybody forecast, and government campaigns to control the noise that millions of people make would be even more difficult to follow through on. After President Ronald Reagan shut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's noise pollution program down, state and local governments quite reasonably have focused on more pressing priorities.

Still, people understandably get angry when fellow citizens don't keep the noise down. There was a time when parents and maybe the neighborhood cop on the beat kept the lid on rowdy parties and late- night shenanigans. Now, unfortunately, when too many residents get annoyed, local officials feel compelled to pass local ordinances that either set decibel standards for noise or outlaw discourteous behavior altogether. New York City employs 40 inspectors to respond to complaints and patrol the streets with decibel meters. Boulder, Colorado, may stop using leaf blowers in city parks, and Portland, Oregon, is moving to hike its current $500 fine for making too much noise up to $5,000. Since 1995, the Indianapolis municipal code has outlawed honking automobile horns for fun or "yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling, or singing on the public streets"--at least after 10 o'clock at night or close to an office, hotel or residence.

Mayor Bart Peterson says Indianapolis officials seldom get noise complaints, but other communities apparently are livelier. Bozeman, Montana, commissioners began drafting a noise-control law after residents griped about skateboarders rolling and crashing in city parks around the clock. Albuquerque toughened several of its 20-year- old regulations this year in part because city officials worried that loud traffic, construction, car stereos, dogs and parties were making city life less tolerable.

But some noise laws haven't held up under legal challenge, and most are enforced unevenly. Albuquerque wants to encourage nighttime entertainment in its moribund downtown, for instance, so city councilors exempted the area's bars from late-hour decibel standards. Bozeman revised its proposal after businesses pointed out they'd have to violate noise restrictions to comply with the city's deadlines for plowing overnight snows from sidewalks and parking lots. Bozeman doesn't own a decibel meter, and Patricia Day-Moore, the assistant city attorney, acknowledges that the ordinance "will open the door for a lot of people to be calling the police" to report what they hear as noise pollution.

The way Day-Moore defines it, "pollution is something that fills my space." There's compelling reason to protect non-smokers from second- hand exposure, but noise just isn't the same threat to public health as smog in the air or fecal coliform in drinking water. It was disgusting, and maybe unhealthy, when bubble gum got stuck to my shoe this summer in downtown Bozeman. But that doesn't mean the city needs to set pollution standards for spitting on the sidewalk.

More and more, notes Sarah Kotchian, Albuquerque's long-time environmental health director, "government has stepped into the breach when neighbors have become less willing to talk to each other." Maybe that's inevitable when cities and towns get too big too fast, becoming too congested and too frenzied. It's a poor substitute, however, for civic courtesy and neighborly concern that used to keep our communities quiet, more tranquil places.


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