August 10, 2012

Proposed Dare noise ordinance amendment stirs concerns


Conflicts between the right to peace and quiet and the need to make a living have spurred a re-examination of appropriate time and loudness for activities in Dare County.  

But a proposed amendment of the county’s noise ordinance has some business owners worried that what they consider unreasonably low decibel standards could cripple a burgeoning wedding industry and ruin festivities for tourists.

“Events are going to become a bigger and bigger part of this island’s economy,” said Trip Forman, co-founder of REAL Watersports in Waves. “They already are.”

Forman’s business, located on four acres of grass-covered waterfront, in early June hosts the annual Triple-S Invitational, a week-long international kiteboarding event. The locale is also a popular venue for weddings, corporate retreats and group outings throughout the year.

The days of Outer Bankers getting up at the crack of dawn to fish and patrol the beaches is mostly gone, Forman said.

“There’s been a huge shift where the economy is going here,” he said.  

 The Triple-S alone, he said, attracts “tens of thousands” of people ---many of them families -- to Hatteras Island. In addition to the competition, the event features nightly parties. For two of the nights, special permits are obtained from the county to end at midnight, with the remaining ending at 11 p.m.

“It fills the island to capacity in a week that was previously a really slow shoulder week,” Forman said.

Forman said that initial complaints from neighbors about the 8-year-old event were alleviated when he provided details about its duration, what it was and his contact information. Now, he said, many of those same neighbors attend the parties.  

“I think there’s a higher anxiety about noise if you don’t know when it’s going to end,” he said.

But Forman said that the proposed ordinance would put Triple-S and other events held at the site out of business, largely because of the volume requirements.

According to the proposal, noise levels between 7 a.m and 10 p.m. in residential areas would be restricted to 60 decibels, equal to the sound of conversational speech; from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., noise would be limited to 50 decibels, comparable to the sound of a refrigerator. In commercial districts, respective levels would be restricted to 65 decibels and 60 decibels; in industrial zones, the respective levels would be 70 and 60.

The sound would be measured at or beyond the property line, or inside the home of the complainant, with windows closed, by professional decibel meters. The meters, which range in cost between $700 and $3,000, would be purchased by the county for Dare County Sheriff’s Office deputies, said county manager Bobby Outten.

Noise related to work like construction and fishing, as well as lawn mowing, off-road vehicles, airplanes and community and sports events at public places, would be exempt.  

Outten said the Sheriff’s Office, which has fielded numerous complaints, earlier this year asked the Board of Commissioners to update the law because the current ordinance, which requires only a “reasonable” noise standard, is too subjective and difficult to enforce.

In drafting the ordinance, Outten said, the county surveyed other communities, including resort areas and college towns.  The decibel levels proposed in Dare’s revision, he said, are consistent with the others.

“The board wants the business community to be successful and thrive,” Outten said, “and they want the rental community to be successful and thrive.  This is an attempt to reach a balance.”

Johnny Willis of Frisco, who is in the construction business, lives near an establishment he did not want to name that has live music. But his issue was with lack of enforcement more than the music.

“They’re just trying to make a living,” he said about the restaurant. “But something has to be done. After 11 o’clock, they need to shut down.”

Willis said that his right to peace of mind is violated because the law is ignored.

“I’ve got a dog barking across the street all night long, even during the day when I’m working,” he said. “If they’d just enforce what it is and do it right, there wouldn’t be any problem.”

The Planning Board is expected to review the proposal at its meeting on Aug. 13 at 6 p.m. If it recommends approval, the Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing at its meeting on Aug. 20 at 5:30 p.m.

Joe Thompson, owner of Koru Village in Avon, said that part of the problem is that village business zones abut residential areas. Although he does not dispute the need for a noise ordinance, he said one proposed is too restrictive and “not thought through.” The county, he said, is blind to the “potential impacts downstream” to an expanding and dynamic part of the tourism industry.

“I believe this proposal is reactionary to a few complaints,” he said.

In recent years, likely because mixed alcoholic drinks are now legal, many more establishments on the island feature live music. Thompson said that Koru has hosted popular acts that locals and visitors have enjoyed, and the music always ends at 10 p.m. A residential condominium is adjacent to the site, which has a swimming pool area called the Beach Klub.

“I can tell you now,” Thompson said, “the Beach Klub during the day, just with people using the pool --‘DADDY, DADDY, DADDY! Can I please jump in the pool?’-- that would exceed the decibel level.”

And because so much of the residential neighborhoods are vacation rentals, there are also lots of activities there, he said, including weddings, a booming, and lucrative, industry on the island, with an estimated 400 to 500 weddings held a year. If a wedding was ever shut down because of a noise complaint, he said, the tightly-networked bridal industry would shun Hatteras Island in a heartbeat.

Thompson, a former planning board member who also owns two restaurants and a construction company, said he believes that the proposed noise ordinance should be sent to a steering committee and reconsidered with public input.

“I personally don’t think that the way ordinances should be written,” he said, “is that two or three people complaining should put an end to 200 or 300 people having good clean fun.”

But Allen Burrus, vice-chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said that noise problems are countywide, spanning the gamut from loud sump pumps to drunken college kids.

Burrus said the measure is intended as a way to inform businesses and residents of excessive noise so they can turn it down or turn it of. It’s not intended to be punitive. People can even keep track of decibel levels themselves with a smart phone app.

The board is open to reasonable adjustments, he said, and anyone with concerns should attend the public meetings.  

“It was a good time to look at the whole thing, and it’s not targeted to one industry at all,” he said. “You’ve got to look at what’s best for everyone . . . They have to be good neighbors, that’s the bottom line.”


Click here to see a copy of the proposed changes in the Dare County noise ordinance.

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