Noise Ordinance Unconstitutional

Brent Finnegan -- July 14th, 2009

A State Supreme Court ruling has rendered most noise ordinances in Virginia temporarily useless. On April 17, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out Virginia Beach’s noise ordinance on the grounds that it was “unconstitutionally vague.”

Justice Barbara Milano Keenan explained the ruling, stating, “Police officers likely will have differing perceptions regarding what levels of sound exceed the described tolerance levels and sensitivities of reasonable persons.”

Many municipalities in Virginia have similar ordinances. A first-time noise violation is a class 3 misdemeanor under Harrisonburg’s code:

No person shall, knowingly or unknowingly, expose another person to any irritating, distracting, physically or emotionally harmful, unreasonably loud, disturbing or unnecessary noise, over which the other person has no control. (16-10-6)

There’s nothing in Harrisonburg’s ordinance about decibel levels, which will likely be amended, because police officers will now need to measure the noise using decibel meters in order to issue citations. Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst says they are purchasing noise meters to adjust for the recent changes in the law.

HPD has had 127 noise violation calls for service since June 1 of this year, according to spokesperson Mary-Hope Gangwer. But she adds, “some calls for service could be the same person calling multiple times and duplication, where neighbors are hearing/calling about the same complaint.”

City Council member Richard Baugh wrote:

The ordinance still prohibits breaches of the peace (Section 16-8-12). This might not apply to the neighbor whose stereo is keeping you up. My guess though is that it would apply to major disturbances, including those generating a great deal of noise … Moreover, every jurisdiction in Virginia is going to be going through this at about the same time. So, a certain amount of communication and seeing what other places are doing seems in order.

The proposal on tonight’s City Council agenda aims to amend and re-enact section 15-3-2 of the city code, capping decibel levels at the property line to 65 decibels during the day, and 55 after 10 p.m.

19 Responses to “Noise Ordinance Unconstitutional”

  1. Drew Richard says:

    Just for reference, a “normal conversation” is 60 decibels.

  2. The amendment has all sorts of daytime exemptions built in: public/private school events, construction (of course), lawn mowers, church bells, political gatherings (protected under the First Amendment), special events that have been granted permits, etc.

    I’m guessing that last one will be tricky. Someone wants to have a show, isn’t aware of the law, the cops ask “Where’s your permit?” and the promoter says “Huh?” In the late 90s, I organized a music festival in the county that got shut down because it didn’t have a permit. Devastating for a teen trying to promote some bands (two of them from California).

    For shows and events in neighborhoods, simply meeting and giving your neighbors a heads-up can go a long way in cutting down on noise complaints.

  3. Renee says:

    Yes, 60 decibels is quite low. I’m not good at remembering numbers exactly, but I believe when I was doing a study of ambient sound on JMU’s campus (and whether the highway noise, etc. could cause hearing damage over the long term), the bridge over 81 had a pretty consistent 80-90 decibels – not with any horns or anything, just the standard sound of moving traffic.

  4. Renee says:

    Here’s a chart for sound comparisons:

  5. Renee says:

    “65 decibels during the day, and 55 after 10 p.m.” until what time in the morning? What if a neighbor is mowing their lawn at 6am on a Saturday morning? Why is blasting music at 3 in the afternoon illegal, but people that wake up the neighbors with a lawnmower at dawn are exempt? I guess they probably have to do some sort of ‘annoyance level’ vs. ‘necessity’ survey to determine which things to give exemptions to.

  6. Yes, 6:00 a.m. is the official end of nighttime according to the amendment.

  7. Rich says:


    Can you provide the text of the amendment?


  8. Rich, you can find it from page 88 – 90 here.

  9. Mark S says:

    The problem with using standard C or A weighted decibel meters is they will not accurately register probably the most annoying modern bad neighbor noise of all ………. the BOOM BOOM BOOM of subharmonic bass that can vibrate the walls of your home from even 1/2 mile away if the part is loud enough.

    A Decibel meter will not really register this as a LOUD auditory signal.

    So this idea is flawed and useless.

    An easier measurement is …… “when inside your own home with doors and windows closed, the outside world should effectively dissapear and not be heard at all”

    • Chris Foster-Baril says:

      I’m calling the police the next time my neighbor mows his lawn.

      It is also not my fault if someone’s house is poorly constructed and they can hear outside noises more easily.

      Has this ordinance been amended?

    • Exactly right, Mark. We moved downtown for a lot of reasons, one minor one being optimism about the ‘Burg’s downtown revival. But after one summer here, we’ve decided to move somewhere else. The normal ambient noise isn’t that bad–it’s the intentional loud noises that are intolerable; motorcycles and cars with glass packs senselessly revving their engines, loud motorcycles, and sub-woofers being the worst offenders. I’ve tried being nice to these people, and I’ve tried being not-so-nice, but day in and day out in the spring and summer, our windows will be rattled by subwoofers, and our peace will be interrupted by some ******* sprinting noisily around in a laughable–but very loud–little car. It’s the stupidity of this noise that’s most irritating–there’s not a good reason in the world for it, it’s all specifically intended to annoy.

      • Doug says:

        Is my motorcycle on the loud side because as the rider I enjoy a drowning noise in my own head? No. However it is loud because 98% of moterests do not pay attention to what is going on around them!

        • David Miller says:

          Your motorcycle is only loud from behind, you are wasting our ear drums with you loud pipes. No one can hear you coming if they are in front of you. As a motorcyclist I know all to well that to live, one must drive defensively. Please don’t try and justify your phallic replacement mufflers with the self-defense argument.

        • Bubby Hussein, Hillbilly Sheikh says:

          Gee Doug, every time one of you little-willie bikers fly by me un-muffled I get all scared and sometimes jerk out of my lane from the fright. Maybe you ought to consider not causing such a commotion. It’s dangerous you know.

  10. Kathy says:

    So, does that mean that Green Earth is violating the night time noise ordinance when they empty the dumpsters in Commercial Ct. at 3:30 am? This happens every Tuesday (sometimes on the Friday pick-up) and involves ALL of the dumpsters in the townhouses. Not only do they empty the dumpsters, but they bang them in order to get all of the trash out, which also echos off of the buildings. There is absolutely NO WAY to sleep through this. A call to the company last summer stopped it for a while, but they went back to the 3:30 schedule gradually.

  11. B. Frimple says:

    “The amendment has all sorts of daytime exemptions built in: public/private school events, construction (of course), lawn mowers, church bells, political gatherings (protected under the First Amendment), special events that have been granted permits, etc.”

    Lawn mowers and construction can be one of the more annoying ‘disturbances’. We love
    to complain about trains as well, there is no sleepin through those though. You
    have to figure they schedule those for the early AM just to piss us off!

  12. Kelly Richardson says:

    Law suits which are claiming personal injury are beginning to be waged against the manufacturers of the sound equipment causing all this noise. I foresee class action lawsuits appearing for personal injury, as the injury is subjective. If you are working on a project which takes extreme concentration , and your concentration is broken because of this noise, are you not being injured to some degree? What I see happening is that the personal injury attorney’s are going to sue these manufacturers of high decibel music equipment on behalf of a great number of complainants, and some will get rich. Would you take the case?

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