Change in noise law dropped, council looks to do study
While legislation that would have amended the city’s noise ordinance was abandoned after lengthy debate Dec. 19, the City Council may well look to change the law in the New Year.
After 40 minutes of testimony, co-sponsor of the measure Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla withdrew the amendment because several businesses owners, as well as their lawyers, opposed it. Ward 7 Councilman Charles “C.J.” Donovan was also a co-sponsor.
Six people, including four local business owners, as well as two attorneys, spoke against the ordinance. In a phone interview the following day, Merolla said he was disappointed because he felt the business community didn’t understand he was trying to amend the previously approved ordinance, which states that venues could have their licenses revoked or modified if they violate the law by having entertainment that creates noise above 60 decibels from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and above 50 decibels from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“They obviously didn’t read a thing about what the amendment was about,” he said. “They just talked about what the ordinance was about in general. I thought the amendment was good and so did the Board of Public Safety because they were the ones that drafted it.”
Yet, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson sees problems with the law as it now stands and docketed a resolution to form a committee and return to the council with recommendations.
She’s not alone in thinking the law could be improved.
At the meeting, Merolla said the Board of Public Safety recently sent the council a letter stating that they had an issue with the current ordinance because it was too vague.
The language was amended to read, “…as part of its licensing and permitting procedure, the Board of Public Safety may also impose noise level limits less than those set forth herein for all or for selected dates of a licensed event based upon factors relative to the event, including but not limited to the time of the event, the proximity of the event to residential neighborhoods and past violations at the event venue. If the Board of Public Safety imposes noise level limits less than those set forth herein, the Board shall set forth the reasons for imposing the lower noise limits.”
Merolla said the goal would have been to avoid venues being shut down at a certain time or having their license revoked for a noise violation. Instead, they would be asked to lower the permitted noise level.
“This does not change what’s been happening for the last 15 to 20 years and it only impacts those who are in violation,” Merolla told the audience. “If it’s outdoor entertainment and they had to require a license, the requirements would remain the same.”
But Chelo’s attorney K. Joseph Shekarchi had concerns and asked if it was a violation of separation of powers. He suggested Merolla review similar ordinances for other Rhode Island cities and towns such as Cranston, East Greenwich and Newport, as he said they have different noise level limitations for industrial and commercial zones versus residential zones.
Another attorney, John Mancini, who represented Chelo’s Waterfront at 1 Masthead Drive, said he is concerned that the discretion being given to the Board of Public Safety is taking the objective standard out and replacing it with a subjective.
“You’re establishing a shift from the legislature to a subcommittee, giving them more discretion,” said Mancini. “You’re allowing them to reduce the standards that are permitted in your ordinance. They now have a subjective rule to remove or lower the standards and we don’t think that falls under the Rhode Island Constitution and render your ordinance illegal.”
He also felt there was a lack of explanation regarding appeals. Merolla deferred Mancini’s questions to City Solicitor John Harrington and Harrington reminded him that the Board of Public Safety is the licensing authority, not the Council. He also said that the history of the ordinance is vague and unenforceable because it merely states that there can’t be loud noise. The amendment would create enforceable noise levels.
“It has no standards,” said Harrington.
His answer didn’t satisfy Mancini. He believes the current ordinance, but not the amendment, is constitutional.
It also did not appease resident Eric Wisheart, who serves on the Building Code Board of Appeals, is a consultant to Chelo’s and has an education in music, production and recording from the Berklee College of Music.
He brought a decibel meter to the meeting and pointed out that certain people have a more sensitive sense of hearing than others, as well as the fact that the ordinance does not include anything about airport noise or other forms of transportation like trains and motor vehicles.
“It could lead to draconian measures if this ordinance is adopted,” Wisheart said. “The decibels are unrealistic. I know a thing or two about acoustics and noise levels can significantly change given the season and time of day.”
Merolla pointed out that the original ordinance was approved “15 to 20 years ago” and that if he removed the amendment, the ordinance would remain the same and the penalties would stay severe.
The meter detected the noise volume at 60 decibels in Council Chambers in City Hall while people were speaking. Wisheart said lawnmowers operate at 90 decibels.
“Simply purchasing a noise meter over the counter at Radio Shack does not make one an expert,” he said. “I see this ordinance as unenforceable and meaningless.”
Ward 5 Councilman John DelGiudice asked when Wisheart’s meter was calibrated and Wisheart said the unit has not been calibrated, as he downloaded it as an application for his iPad. He informed the council it was possible it was off by five to 10 decibels.
Wisheart also suggested the ordinance be redrafted by the City of Warwick and be targeted toward the venue and its surroundings, as water increases noise.
Melanie Flamand, owner of the Carousel Grill at 859 Oakland Beach Avenue, said she frequently hosts entertainment at her establishment and was concerned about the ordinance.
“This could potentially stop entertainment in Rhode Island,” she said at the meeting.
Again, Merolla said that her argument, like the previous ones, didn’t pertain to his amendment. He then asked if she has ever been in violation and she answered “no,” and she said she doesn’t agree with the ordinance or the amendment.
Merolla said her license could be revoked if she receives a violation and asked her if she wanted a violation.
At the meeting, Flamand told Merolla his comment was “rude,” to which he said, “People need to read what the amendment says. I’m sorry people are confused about that. If people don’t want this, we can withdraw it but you need to read what it says before you get upset.”
Merolla later said that he didn’t think he was out of line. He felt he had to continuously remind people that they were arguing against the already established ordinance, not the amendment.
Flamand, who also owns and operates Flamand U-Haul, as well as Jefferson Office Suites at 55 Jefferson Boulevard, has hosted charity events with live entertainment for local non-profit organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, Trudeau Center and Cornerstone, to name a few.
In reference to the exchange with Merolla, she said during a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, “It’s sad that he would get that upset over questions, concerns and comments addressed by me and other members of the community because of a difference of opinion.”
Kurt Harrington, owner of Something Fishy, Inc., a business located on Jefferson Boulevard that specializes in aquariums and waterscapes, said that while his company is not impacted by noise, he is a member of the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and felt it was important to speak for local businesses.
At that point, Merolla said, “I’m going to withdraw the amendment for the business community.”
Harrington continued to tell the council that he owns a boat that he docks at Brewers Marina in Warwick near Chelo’s Waterfront and said his two children often fall asleep on the boat during summer nights while venues are playing music or have bands performing. The discussion ended with Merolla again stating that he would withdraw the amendment, which he did later on in the meeting.
During the docketing session, Vella-Wilkinson introduced a resolution to establish a committee to review the noise statute and deal with matters the constituents and attorneys proposed.
“I recognized what Councilman Merolla was trying to do in finding a fair [decibel] rate with noise complaints,” said Vella-Wilkinson. “Our noise ordinance is completely out of touch and this is an issue that truly does impact all of Warwick city lines so we’ve got to make sure we are finding the right balance between protecting the rights of an individual’s property, as well as making sure we’re not creating unnecessary obstacles for the business community where they can not be considered competitive with bordering towns and cities.”
Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis said while she doesn’t get many complaints about music at restaurants, she does receive several grievances from her constituents regarding motorcycle noise at Oakland Beach and surrounding streets. She said she has brought it to the attention of the Warwick Police Department to no avail.
“Unfortunately, I guess a lot of officers have motorcycles and they’re not pushing it,” said Travis. “I want the police to start working more on that, whether it’s violations on the piping or whatever. Something has to be done.”
But Merolla said the issue goes beyond noise, especially in his ward, which encompasses Chelo’s on the Waterfront. He said parking is also a problem, as bands that perform there have large followings and the lot does not accommodate patrons.
“It’s expanded beyond their lot and people are parking in neighborhoods,” he said. “They’ve hired valet parking on Cowesett Road at the dry cleaners and business owners are getting upset because people are parking where their tenants park and walking down the hill. They’re sneaking extra beer down, dropping the cans and vomiting and urinating in the lots and yards.”