Unreasonable noise regulations and NIMBYism

There’s a new citizens’ group in town, the DC Nightlife Noise Coalition. Though the name sounds more like a local dubstep group, it’s actually devoted to quieting down 1998’s hottest clubbing destination, Dupont Circle. Though the group is headed by Sarah Peck, it seems long-time anti-booze crusader Abigail Nichols is heavily involved. You may remember her as the head of the DC Alcohol Sanity Coalition, and as ANC Commissioner for district 2B05 to which she was elected to after receiving a whopping 34 votes.

The group primarily consists of people who live in the Palladium, a condo tower located behind the Big Hunt, Cafe Citron, and the Madhatter, though they are apparently not concerned with these bars (who could oppose 20 cent wings?). According to the 23-page white paper they’ve published, residents are only kept up by bars and clubs a few blocks away: Ozio, Rosebar, Eighteenth Street Lounge, and others located on the triangle created by the intersections of 18th Street, M Street, and Connecticut Avenue.

The Noise Coalition claims to have measured loud levels of music outside of these clubs ranging from 77 to 83 decibels, with the alley behind one club reaching 96 decibels. This is louder than the measurements they took outside of each location at 4pm, and much louder than the 60 decibels they’d  like clubs to stick to. 60 decibels is a the volume of a polite conversation measured from a few feet away in a quiet room. It’s quieter than the sound that comes out of your headphones, and quieter than your television.

Local regulations task the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs with measuring the sound emanating from bars and clubs, but it’s more difficult than it sounds. I purchased a professional sound level meter and visited each of the bars and clubs listed in the Noise Coalition’s white paper and also took measurements in front of the Palladium. First at about 8:00pm Friday night, and then again after 12:30am, volumes ranged from the high 70s to the mid-to-low 80s in most locations. The alley behind Ozio clocked in at 85 decibels in the evening, but this was due to the loud heating and air conditioning units from the surrounding buildings.

The average noise level was in the 80s on the corner of 18th and M Streets, but it was also the location of the loudest noise of the night: a passing car peaked at 104.9 decibels. While music was audible outside of the clubs, the main source of noise, both in the evening and after midnight, was from cars, buses, and people talking. The levels I measured were similar to those published by the Noise Coalition, except that I found significantly higher ambient noise away from bars.

DCRA officials will find it difficult to keep clubs to a 60 decibel noise limit when the city itself is several times louder to begin with. When the silence required by DC statutes is broken by every passing car, conversation, or sneeze–none of which are covered in the regulations or can be controlled by a nightclub–then the statute becomes unenforceable.

A second-best outcome would be to eliminate the 60 decibel limit and instead require inexpensive soundproofing for new clubs. On their end, people in the Palladium could spend a few bucks on noise-cancelling earbuds, or purchase better windows.

The worst thing to do would be to erect even more regulatory barriers to opening a restaurant or bar in the District just because living in an urban area comes with noise. That would impose burdens on the thousands of people who frequent Dupont Circle for dining and entertainment when much cheaper methods of dealing with noise are available.