Our View: Reasonable noise policy is possible
April 8, 2011
The Steamboat Springs City Council is right to pursue a noise ordinance that is enforceable, easy to understand and respectful of downtown residents and businesses. The existing ordinance fails those guidelines, as does the city's first attempt at revising it. The state of Colorado's rules, which would take effect in the absence of a city ordinance, are even worse.
A vibrant nightlife with live music and other entertainment is a key community component. So, too, is a mix of downtown residences. Both can peacefully co-exist with a little common sense.
Here's how the city could get there: Tweak the noise ordinance by raising the decibel limits for commercial zones, including downtown, to the same as those for light industrial zones. Also, require complainants to first take reasonable steps to abate the noise — closing a window or door, for example — before a violation occurs.
Efforts to rewrite the noise ordinance are the direct result of an ongoing dispute between the Ghost Ranch Saloon and Howelsen Place. Ghost Ranch Saloon is a bar and live music venue downtown. Howelsen Place is a mix of commercial and residential units. Howelsen Place is directly across Seventh Street from the saloon, and at least one condominium owner has complained about noise from the Ghost Ranch Saloon late at night, especially when the door to the nightclub is opened.
The owner of Ghost Ranch thinks he already has done enough — $700,000 in sound-proofing — to prevent noise issues. The Howelsen Place condo owner thinks that, on multiple occasions, Ghost Ranch has violated the ordinance. Some on the City Council seem to think Ghost Ranch could fix the problem by spending about $50,000 on a vestibule for its entrance; ironically, Ghost Ranch says it offered that during construction but was denied by the city because of easement issues.
Most people can't define decibels. Here's the best we can do — 60 decibels is comparable to normal conversation; double that and you get the sound of a jet engine.
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The current city ordinance allows for a maximum of 60 decibels between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and a maximum of 55 decibels from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The City Council's first attempt at revising the ordinance would allow for as much as 65 decibels from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and for 60 decibels from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
We would increase that slightly to match the rules for light industrial zoning, allowing for 70 decibels from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and 65 decibels from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. A little louder than conversation but a lot quieter than a jet engine.
Capt. Joel Rae, of the Steamboat Springs Police Department, said it's impossible to bring a prosecutable noise violation case to court under the current ordinance. Evidence gathering is simply too difficult, Rae said, because the ordinance requires that the decibel level persist for 15 minutes.
The new ordinance would strike that. Any noise measured above the decibels authorized for the specific time of day would constitute a violation, punishable by increasing fines and, potentially, the loss of a restaurant's liquor license. We don't disagree with that, especially at the higher decibel limits.
The new law states the decibel level will be measured at the complainant's property line. That's not really fair. A downtown resident should not be able to stifle nightlife because he wants peace and quiet while he kicks it on his balcony at 1 a.m. Go inside and close the windows. If it's still too loud, by all means call in a complaint.
Noise ordinance variances here are common, the city says, and they allow events such as the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo and the Steamboat Springs Free Summer Concert Series to go on without breaking the law. Obviously, such a liberal variance policy should continue for events downtown.
We want downtown to be a vibrant, at times even noisy, place. We also want it to be an attractive place to live. There's no reason to think both can't happen with a pragmatic approach to our noise ordinance.