Council agrees city departments should work within current noise ordinance

Concerns voiced about imposing a restrictive ordinance

When is music in Prescott’s downtown too much of a good thing?

That was a question that Prescott City Council members grappled with Tuesday, Oct. 10, when the city’s noise ordinance was up for review.

According to several residents at the meeting, the live music that emanates from outdoor bar-and-restaurant patios and special-event venues in the downtown area often pushes the limits on what is reasonable.

Residents related stories of music so loud that they have difficulty sleeping, hearing the television, and carrying on conversations inside their homes.

Daniel Mattson, who lives on Merritt Street, for instance, said he sometimes must use headphones in order to hear the TV. “A lot of these events on the square are a lot louder than they need to be,” he said, adding, “We shouldn’t lose our enjoyment of our nice peaceful houses just because a bunch of tourists want loud music.”

McCormick Street resident Ruth Backway said she has dealt with the issue of too-loud music for years. “When I can hear the words to a song in my living room, (the music) is too loud,” she said.

Still, Backway said she has been working with city officials and bar owners recently to keep the decibel level under control, and, for the most part, she said, “It’s livable.”

Indeed, this week’s views were mixed, with some residents and a majority of council members maintaining that the city should leave its ordinance as is.

After about an hour of discussion, the council agreed that the police, legal and recreation departments should continue to work within the current ordinance to keep the noise levels down.

‘Workable ordinance’

Mayor Harry Oberg noted that he asked to have the issue on the council’s study-session agenda this week because he had heard a number of complaints from residents about the impacts of downtown’s outdoor music.

While events on the courthouse plaza usually don’t generate noise complaints, Oberg said — likely because of the plaza’s location and the abundance of trees that buffer the noise — events at the Mile High Middle School football field do tend to bring complaints.

Oberg pushed for a change in the city ordinance that would incorporate a reasonable decibel level for noise in the city.

City Attorney Jon Paladini cautioned, however, that such an approach could be difficult to enforce, and could ultimately hurt downtown special events, which help to fuel the city’s tourism.

A city memo stated: “Overly restrictive noise regulations could impact city special event operations.”

The memo included four options for the council: Prescott’s current ordinance; using a “reasonable person standard”; Mesa’s former code, which used decibel measurements; and Scottsdale’s policy of using the reasonable-person standard, but presuming that any noise over 68 decibels is unreasonable.

Paladini led off the discussion by telling the council, “We do have a workable noise ordinance currently in effect.” He maintained that the city’s policy of prohibiting “any unreasonably loud and disturbing noise …” allows officials to adequately deal with noise issues.

Prescott Police Chief Debora Black agreed. “I believe the current ordinance does give us what we need,” she told the council, adding that, based on the comments from Tuesday’s meeting, “We can do a little bit more with (officer) training” to ensure that the ordinance is working.

After the meeting, Black said the city had received about 300 noise complaints so far in 2017, with about 20 percent of those coming from the extended downtown area. She stressed that the total includes everything from car noise to construction noise to music coming from nearby homes, and added that the department’s record-keeping does not indicate how many of the complaints are specifically related to music at downtown events.

Too heavy-handed?

A majority of council members voiced concerns about imposing an ordinance that would be too restrictive.

Councilman Steve Sischka compared the proposed ordinance changes to “the proverbial going after a fly with a sledgehammer.”

And Councilwoman Billie Orr worried about “unintended consequences” that could arise from a new ordinance. Rather than writing a new law, she said, “We need to work through the process.”

That was an approach that Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes also advocated. “I think this is a process we have to work through,” he said, noting that his department has worked with event promoters on various points, such as trying out different locations for the stage during events at Mile High Middle School, and asking for adjustments to the music’s bass volume.

Baynes said that while decibel readers could be used effectively as a tool, he voiced concerns that writing a limit into law could be problematic.

Sischka agreed: “To come up with a decibel level that everyone can agree on is really getting into the weeds, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2034, or cbarks@prescottaz.com.