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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Topsail to regulate noise decibels after resident complaints

TOPSAIL BEACH — Residents of a small Pender County coastal town have been asking for limitations on noise pollution for about a year. Now, their requests have come to fruition.

The Topsail Board of Commissioners unanimously approved strict updates to its noise ordinance Thursday.

READ MORE: Topsail to move forward with additional paid parking lots

The new regulations are identical to Surf City’s and allow for a 5 decibel higher reading than the City of Wilmington. Prior, Topsail did not specify decibel levels within its ordinance, leaving room for interpretation.

Town staff was tasked in August 2022 with revamping the rules and what was deemed “disruptive” or “excessive” noise. Pressure from residents regarding beach events, barking dogs, DJs and more pushed commissioners to take a closer look.

“A noise ordinance was brought to us many months ago to discuss for a variety of reasons — not just for noise coming from businesses but also from residences and beach parties,” town manager Doug Shipley said Thursday. “We’ve put together what we believe is the best noise ordinance at the moment.”

In commercial zoning districts, a noise regulation of 80 maximum decibels — similar to the sound of city traffic or a leaf blower, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — will be in place Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

During the week, from 11 p.m. through 7 a.m., maximum levels are 55 decibels — a little louder than the sound of a normal conversation, according to the CDC.

On weekends, it rises to 60 decibels from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

In residential districts, noise must remain at 80 decibels Sunday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. — ending a half hour earlier than the commercial. The decibel levels remain at 55 from 10:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Staff presented a draft version for commissioners and the public to review in December. They looked at various town’s ordinances and discussed their findings internally with attorney Stephen Coggins.

After hearing public feedback, Shipley presented the amended ordinance for a vote. This regulation is a good first start, he said, but can be revisited.

To determine a noise disturbance, the following circumstances will be investigated:

  • Does the noise cross property lines?
  • Complaints of neighbors regarding the noise
  • Effect on neighbors complaining about the noise
  • Time of day at which the noise takes place
  • The intensity and duration of the noise
  • The type of noise produced
  • The reason or reasons for the noise
  • Alternative means available which will not produce excessive noise

The ordinance addresses radios, TVs, musical instruments; loud speakers; street sales; animals and birds; loading and unloading; construction and demolition; airports and aircraft operations; explosives and firearms; signaling devices; domestic power tools between the times of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.; vehicles; repairs and maintenance heard across property lines and engine exhausts.

Over the last four years, the town has seen changes to its business district, according to Mayor Steven Smith. The town “tried to give latitude” to businesses during the pandemic, he added. Thereafter, many businesses had to shut down for a period of time and the town wanted to support additional efforts made by business owners to bring in patrons.

“But one of the things that happened was expanded operations and they added more music,” Smith said at the meeting.  

Resident Susan Croom has raised concerns about the noise ordinance in previous meetings. She spoke Thursday about the hours and asked commissioners to consider enforcing the decibel levels in the residential districts starting at 10 p.m., instead of 10:30 p.m. or at least during the off season.

Shipley explained the town bought a certified sound meter and tested real-life scenarios — music, chainsaws, vehicles — before making its final decision on associated levels.

Added into the ordinance, law enforcement officers have to observe the noise complaint. In other words, if someone issues a noise grievance, an officer would have to witness the continuous sounds for more than five minutes before deciding if it was in violation of the policy.

Shipley used the example of a pickup truck with a loud muffler.

“Clearly, they’re going to be over the decibel level, but let them drive through town,” he said. “But if they’re sitting in one area of town doing it for five minutes, that’s one thing.”

Attorney Coggins explained the five-minute rule could have some legal ramifications.

“I like the objective certainty, but it also provides a primary opportunity for manipulation,” he said. “And it will be.”

Someone playing music, for instance, will also have breaks between songs.

“Any lawyer defending that person would say they did not violate this ordinance,” Coggins said. “There was not one moment of continuous five minutes.”

Assistant town manager Christina Burke admitted a “gray area” in the ordinance.

Kate MacDonald spoke out during public comment about her business Playground owner on S. Anderson Boulevard; it often has DJs and loud music. She was asked years ago to implement noise-measuring devices, based on complaints from neighboring businesses and residents. Staff confirmed at the time she was not violating the current ordinance.

“Since then, I have taken it upon myself and my DJs to self-monitor,” she told commissioners.

MacDonald said she regularly takes walks in the evenings to check on the noise level in the surrounding area.

“We make sure we comply and I have complied,” she said. “Yet, I understand there are still complaints that come in on a routine basis.”

When a noise level cannot be “reasonably measured” with a device, the complaints of two or more different residents, plus a Topsail Beach police officer’s evaluation, could deem the level  “unreasonably loud or excessive.”

“I think that will open up a can of worms the town may not want later on,” MacDonald said. “You essentially give your community the ability to weaponize your police department and your town. I don’t think that’s the way it should work. If you’re in compliance with the ordinance, you are; if you’re not, you’re not. It’s a very simple avenue.”

Violations of the policy result in a written warning first. The second offense warrants a $100 fine; followed by a $250 fine on the third offense. Any subsequent infractions rise to $500 and could result in criminal charges. The town may also seek “nuisance abatement actions concerning habitual offenders.”

The updates are in effect immediately.

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