Steamboat’s noise control laws complex
Police captain says many factors play into volume violations
February 20, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Little is certain about potential revisions to a city noise ordinance or how those revisions could affect downtown businesses — but, if nothing else, improved equipment for enforcement is in place.
"We do have a new decibel meter and we have two Police Department employees who are trained on the use of that meter," Capt. Joel Rae, of the Steamboat Springs Police Department, said last week. "This one has an ability to keep track of noise levels literally for hours at a time."
Rae said the new meter was acquired in December and provides a digital readout of decibel levels. The city's old meter had a needle that moved over a decibel scale in a manner that made tracking data difficult. Rae said the new meter can be plugged into a computer to create a graph of noise levels throughout a sustained period of time, allowing officers to account for extenuating circumstances such as passing trains, creek noise, diesel trucks and more.
Even with the new equipment, Rae said, enforcement of any new noise ordinance would be a complex task involving many factors, including the subjectivity of people's differing reactions to any particular noise level. He said enforcement would require "somebody who is being truly disturbed," coupled with noise louder than a set limit.
Sixty decibels, for example, is about as loud as normal conversation. It's the allowable nighttime noise level in Aspen, Vail and Denver's LoDo district. It's also five decibels louder than Steamboat Springs' current nighttime noise limit of 55 decibels.
Rae said from an enforcement perspective, a new ordinance would need to clearly set acceptable noise levels, limits and measurement procedures.
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"It's obvious that our current noise ordinances need to be thoroughly looked at and updated, because what we have in place does not work for enforcement," Rae said. "I think City Council has their work cut out for them to find out what's best."
The Steamboat Springs Department of Planning and Community Development is reviewing noise regulations in municipalities across the country and working to draft revisions to Steamboat's noise regulations. Those revisions could come before city officials in public hearings in April.
But no specific timetable for that public process has been set, as debate continues about nighttime noise levels and how to mitigate conflicting desires of businesses and residents along the Lincoln Avenue corridor and at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.
The issue escalated in summer after a citation for the Ghost Ranch Saloon on Seventh Street. The bar and live music venue is across the street from Howelsen Place, a residential and commercial development. At least one homeowner there filed noise complaints that, at least in part, led to the Ghost Ranch citation.
Homeowners in the base area Clock Tower Square building are appealing the liquor license for the new location of the Powder Room nightclub, which is planning to open on the building's ground level. Clock Tower homeowners are concerned about excessive noise from the Powder Room, which left its previous location in Torian Plum Plaza after homeowner complaints about noise there.
Rae, Police Chief JD Hays and Tracy Barnett, of Mainstreet Steamboat Springs, traveled to Denver in June for a forum by the California-based Responsible Hospitality Institute, to learn about resolving such noise conflicts. The city then contributed $2,000 to bring institute members to Steamboat in September.
"The main reason we got involved with the Responsible Hospitality Institute … is to look for other alternatives for people who want to be in those mixed-use areas," Rae said.
Steamboat Springs City Council member Jon Quinn said, in his view, enforcement of a new noise ordinance should not occur in cases of incidental violations.
"This would be one of those things that if there were recurring incidents and complaints … we'd see if somebody is in violation on a consistent basis," Quinn said last week. "Really, we're talking about a sustained level of noise."
Rae said that sort of approach could leave the door open to subjectivity.
"There's a violation and there's not," Rae said. "I'd like to look for permanent resolutions."
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or e-mail mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com