Thursday, July 25, 2024

Wilmington considers complete rewrite of noise code, Council worries about red tape

Garbage rounds starting an hour earlier? Folks required to get permits for every outdoor live music event? Wilmington City Council is debating re-doing its current noise code.

The Wilmington Strong Hurricane Florence Relief Concert at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Saturday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The Wilmington Strong Hurricane Florence Relief Concert at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Wilmington is completely rewriting its noise ordinance, but the changes still have Council concerned the city is complicating the issue for music-based businesses.

Between confused police officers and frustrated business owners, Council acknowledges the noise code must change. But how it changes is still up for debate.

Related: Brewery owner: Noise citation at charity concert sets unhealthy precedent for Wilmington music scene

City Attorney Meredith Everhart presented a completely rewritten noise ordinance Monday morning, but City Council will still have to approve it.

Citywide times, distances lifted

The rewrite was intended to simplify a code Everhart said, adding that the officers tasked with enforcing the ordinance have a hard time keeping up it. Current noise code includes 13 different sets of restrictions, that vary depending on location, time of day, and time of the week.

“It was just very confusing for them,” Everhart said of Wilmington police officers. “And if it’s confusing for them, then I know it’s confusing for the public to know what they can and can’t do.”

Instead, Everhart proposed removing complications and enforcing 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. noise restrictions across the city. Maximum decibel (dB) ranges that vary depending on zoning district would remain in place. However, the maximum level of noise permitted will be lowered, with a maximum of 65 dB downtown, 55 dB in residential areas, and 70 dB in commercial or industrial areas.

Current entertainment restrictions, which include a regulation that noise shall not exceed levels allowed beyond 66 or 100 feet from the source of the sound, would be lifted.

Noise restrictions as outlined in a presentation by city attorney Meredith Everhart in April. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Wilmington)
Noise restrictions as outlined in a presentation by city attorney Meredith Everhart in April. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Wilmington)

The citywide 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. restrictions differs from what’s in place now. Allowing noise exceedances at 6 a.m., rather than 7 a.m. — the current ordinance — gives construction workers, city and private waste employees an extra hour in the morning to conduct work.

Everhart said giving city waste collection employees more time in the morning would help in the summer months when temperatures rise to finish their runs. But Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes said she worried noise at 6 a.m. is too early.

“You’re going to have every landscaper in town out at 6 o’clock in the morning,” Haynes said Monday. 

Additionally, Greenfield Lake Amphitheater must separately stop noise-generating activity by 10 p.m., according to a separate city policy already in place.

Officer discretion

Wilmington Police Department has just one sound-level meter, valued at $10,000. Officers can issue citations without a meter reading, and without actually hearing the sound in question. If officers don’t hear the sound, they must consider 12 factors before citing someone using their own discretion.

Citations begin with a written warning, which can then be followed first with a $200 citation, then a second $250 citation, and a $500 third fine that could be applied for subsequent citations. Multiple citations can be issued in a single night.

Phone apps, or other personal sound-reading devices owned by business owners, will not be considered, Everhart said.

In an apparent reference to Wrightsville Beach Brewery, whose owner recently spoke out about officers issuing citations without using meters, Mayor Bill Saffo voiced concerns about repeat 911 callers. “It’s all subjective,” Saffo said.

He brought up breweries in town who are being harassed by repeat complainers, and by default, officers stuck responding to the same callers.

“My concern here, is we are fining people for false alarms,” Saffo said. “How many times do we send a service delivery of an officer who should be doing other things?”

State law regulates the misuse of the 911 system. Still, Everhart said the city could consider creating a violation or disincentive for repeat callers when a noise ordinance violation is not taking place.

Permits for everything

Everhart’s proposal included the requirement for a permit for every outdoor entertainment event. This did not sit well with Council.

Businesses with recurring outdoor entertainment events would be required to obtain permits for each event at least 10 days in advance and no more than 60 days ahead.

Applications would be filed and approved by the Wilmington Police Department. For recurring events, or for businesses that plan to host recurring outdoor music, Everhart said events could be applied for in bulk. That makes six total applications in a year, if owners apply 60-days out, she said. 

“We personally, when we were writing it, didn’t think it was too onerous,” Everhart said.

When businesses leave the door open while indoor music or noise is generated outside property lines, it would still be considered “outdoor entertainment,” with a permit required. Officers could cite business or homeowners for not having a permit at their discretion. Everhart said officers would not likely cite homeowners hosting one-time events for not having a permit. However, officers could cite those who are “snubbing your nose at city and city council,” Everhart said, for not having permits who are aware of the requirement.

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark pushed back on the permit-for-everything proposal.

“We’re bureaucrats. They’re not,” Rivenbark said, of business owners who would have to keep up with applying for permits. “I think you’re putting a lot of undue onus on the backs of our police officers having to go out there and make these calls,” Rivenbark said. “It’s pretty overbearing.”

Everhart will take concerns raised Monday and incorporate them into an updated proposal.

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