Seph Murtagh

Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd)

Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) is spearheading a Common Council initiative to revise the city noise ordinance in response to ongoing public complaints, largely focused on commercial noise. The city hired noise expert Eric M. Zwerling, president of The Noise Consultancy, LLC and director of the Rutgers University Noise Technical Assistance Center to assess the current noise ordinance and meet with members of the public and city staff before offering his recommendations for a new ordinance. 

Zwerling presented on the technical and political aspects of altering the noise ordinance at a public forum held Thursday, Oct. 17 at the Tompkins County Public Library. Among the most common conflicts Zwerling noted were those between commercial properties, construction zones and sports stadiums, and the neighbors around them who experience their business activities as a nuisance. “In general, when I’m writing a noise ordinance,” said Zwerling, “if everyone is annoyed with me I’ve struck a reasonable balance.” 

Murtagh described the rest of Zwerling’s visit: “He was here for two days. While he was here we held an internal meeting with city staff, a couple of council members and the mayor, to get feedback about enforcement of the current noise ordinance from the city prosecutor and chief of police.”

The Friday following his presentation, Zwerling met with smaller groups of local residents and businesses owners, and conducted site visits around Ithaca to perform sound tests.

“The next step is for Zwerling to draft a new noise ordinance,” explained Murtagh, “and send it back to Common Council. I would expect him to be done with that work around mid-winter. When we get it we’ll debate it and hopefully we’ll get it passed in council by the summer.”

As Zwerling explained, noise ordinances can be established utilizing a decibel standard that stipulates the decibel level at a certain distance from the source of the noise or using the “plainly audible” standard, which would stipulate a distance at which the noise should not be plainly audible. 

“We’re currently using a hybrid of a plainly audible and nuisance standard,” said Murtagh, “which regulates the distance at which offensive noises should not be plainly audible. Our current ordinance is too subjective, it puts the burden of judgment on the officer responding to the noise complaint and I don’t think that’s fair. We want a more clearly defined ordinance so that everyone is aware of and understands the rules.”

According to Murtagh, around 95 percent of noise violations in the city are effectively managed through the current ordinance, but the remaining five percent have proven to be difficult situations in which the officer on the scene has to make a judgment call about a nuisance noise. If the new ordinance is written as a decibel standard, the responding officer would have a clearly defined parameter for determining a noise violation, however, a decibel standard would require the city invest in sound equipment and training for IPD officers to use that equipment.

“I think there’s interest in seeing if we can come up with a decibel standard for regular commercial noise in the city,” said Murtagh, “particularly outdoor amplified music. The nice thing is there’s a lot of flexibility in what we can do with the ordinance.” •

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