A new noise control ordinance of Lower Merion is scheduled for adoption by the Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, May 18, after a public hearing. Some of the most important contents of this ordinance have been left open for discussion by the commissioners on May 18. The issues are discussed below.
Excessive noise is a major quality-of-life issue for our suburban residential community. For North Ardmore, with its proximity to the commercial operations at Suburban Square, it is particularly important. We are also faced with the relatively new phenomenon of outdoor gathering/party facilities at the condominium buildings being built in our area, e.g. at the former YMCA site and in the future, at the corner of Glenn Road and Montgomery Avenue.
The Township has a noise control ordinance. It is 40 years out of date. The decibel level maximums that it prescribes are on a scale that contemporary noise meters don’t read. Enforcement is difficult. The Township owns only one noise meter, which is kept locked up in the Building and Planning Department. If a citizen wishes to complain about excessive noise after regular business hours, the citizen has to call the police department, which then tries to get hold of a B&P employee in order to gain access to the meter.
Although a $10,000 appropriation for hiring a noise consultant was approved in the budget for 2012, it was not until 2014 that the township hired Dr. E. Carr Everbach, professor of engineering at Swarthmore College, as a consultant to help bring its noise control ordinance up to date. Dr. Everbach has considerable experience in serving as a consultant to municipalities that want to control noise levels for their residents.
Dr. Everbach presented a report to the Lower Merion commissioners in September 1914. The report, which can be read at:
It consisted of a commentary on the current noise ordinance and a suggestion for a replacement ordinance. Dr. Everbach’s suggested replacement uses standards that reflect contemporary technology as adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The dBA scale to be used is explained in the report. The new ordinance has been lying dormant for a year and a half; despite constant prodding by the Federation of Civic Associations, it has been a very low priority item for the Building and Planning Department, which is responsible for moving it forward. (Similarly, although funds were also appropriated in 2012 for hiring a consultant to prepare revisions to the Township’s light control ordinance, an RFP for this has yet to be issued, 4 years later.)
On April 13, 2016, Bob Duncan, Assistant Township Manager and Director of Building and Planning, finally brought his draft of the new ordinance before the commissioners. It was the Everbach proposal with a couple of inconsequential wording changes. For some reason Dr. Everbach was not invited to that meeting, and the commissioners engaged in a loose improvisational dialogue in which they tossed out suggestions for dBA maximums going up to 80 dBA. The new ordinance will be adopted on Wednesday, May 18, after a public hearing. Some civic association and Federation of Civic Associations representatives have engaged Dr. Everbach to appear at the public hearing, where he will provide a live demonstration of various sound levels. His expert opinion is that 80 dBA is preposterous.
The proposed ordinance raises three major issues – Permitted Noise Levels, Daytime/Nighttime Hours, and Exemptions — that should be of concern to our residential community.
- Permitted Noise Levels.
Mr. Duncan’s submission followed the Everbach draft in proposing daytime and nighttime decibel limits, differentiating between residential and non-residential noise-“receiving” (as opposed to noise-generating) properties. For residential properties, the maximum suggested noise level reaching the property was 57 dBA for daytime and 52 dBA for nighttime hours. For commercial properties, the maximum suggested dBA levels were 67 daytime and 62 nighttime. Average suggested noise levels for residential properties were a maximum of 52 dBA daytime and 45 dBA nighttime; and for non-residential properties, 62 dBA daytime and 55 dBA nighttime.
Obviously these numbers mean nothing to laypersons who are not sound engineers. Nevertheless, some commissioners took it upon themselves to question these proposed limits, and one of them proposed a daytime limit of 80 dBA for residential properties with an average of 75 dBA. Dr. Everbach has indicated that an 80 dBA limit is much higher than a residential area (or commercial area, for that matter) can tolerate.
- Daytime and Nighttime Hours.
Mr. Duncan proposed at the April 13 meeting that daytime hours should begin at 8:00 a.m. and terminate at 11:00 p.m., with nighttime hours to start at 11:00 p.m. and end at 8:00 a.m. There was disagreement among the commissioners as to the appropriateness of these times. Therefore, Mr. Duncan has advertised the ordinance with a range of starting times for nighttime hours, ranging from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and the commissioners will vote on which starting time the ordinance will provide when it is enacted on May 18.
The draft noise ordinance provides exemptions from the noise limits for (1) emergency vehicles; (2) construction work and building repair and maintenance, to begin no earlier than 8:00 a.m.; (3) landscaping, to begin no earlier than 8:00 a.m.; (4) band concerts, block parties, carnivals or similar activities as long as they do not generate sound levels more than 15 dBA above the permitted daytime levels and do not occur between 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.; and warning devices (backup beepers) lasting no more than 3 minutes.
There was no consensus among the commissioners at the April 13 meeting about the appropriate evening hour at which construction and landscaping work should be required to terminate. Therefore, ranges have been advertised as follows: between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. weekdays, and between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Commissioner McElhaney is an advocate for the latest possible stopping time for the benefit of the home improver who may not be able to work on his or her property during normal working hours. In addition, a range is advertised for weekend day starting times, between 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.
Finally, Commissioner Anna Durbin requested that sporting events be added to the list of activities exempt from the noise level limitations.
It appears that the Building and Planning Department would be responsible for enforcement during regular working hours. Mr. Duncan would like the Police Department to cover other hours (when it is most likely there will be complaints) so as to avoid overtime costs to the B&P Department. Currently the Township has only one noise meter, which is housed in the B&P Department. Meters that can provide readings of dBA levels are relatively inexpensive and it is thought that they can be provided to police patrol units at fairly low cost.
This noise ordinance is a quality-of-life related ordinance on which residents have been requesting the Township to take action for many years. One example of how not having an appropriate ordinance in place is the continuing struggle between residential areas that abut shopping centers with outdoor dining facilities. Local civic associations were compelled to expend thousands of dollars in order to achieve an accommodation from Federal Realty, owner of the Wynnewood shopping center, to limit the noise level and hours of outdoor music emanating from the Mad Mex restaurant in the former Borders building. NACA had a minor struggle with the B&P Department last year over the amount of noise coming from the Courtyard at Suburban Square. Good decisions as to what exemptions are appropriate and what hours of noise-generating activities can be tolerated are needed. Should leaf blowers be allowed until 11:00 p.m.? Another concern is the detrimental effect on residential quality of life from public address systems at sporting events.
The Federation has committed up to $750 to help defray the cost of Dr. Everbach’s services. NACA should stand ready to chip in, with other civics that have already committed to help, to make up the rest, if more is required.
The importance of a big public turnout on May 18 cannot be over-emphasized. This is not an issue where the B&P Department has supported the residential community, and many of the commissioners are indifferent to the issues raised.