Focus on Acoustics: City Noise Ordinances, Navigating a Sea of Noise

As our population increases and expands, “noise pollution” has been increasingly recognized as a serious and growing environmental and health problem, with consequences ranging from stress and anxiety to permanent hearing loss. Thankfully, noise ordinances have been put in place to ensure a safer world for our ears to live in, but developing building and site designs that comply with these laws can leave one feeling stranded in treacherous waters.

The first anti-noise law in the United States came about with the Noise Control Act of 1972, which was a piece of federal legislation that put the power of noise regulation with the Environmental Protection Agency – that is, until funding was stopped in 1981. It was decided at that time that noise policy was best left to state and local governments. However, the vast majority of states don’t have any noise ordinances, and those that do may only provide a general set of guidelines for individual municipalities to model their own sets of rules. The result? A set of widely varying noise laws that change continually from town, to town, to town…

To put this in perspective, think about highway speed limits. For some of us, keeping within the posted speed limit is difficult enough. Now imagine that you’re driving down the highway, and every few miles the speed limit signs change from miles per hour, to kilometers per hour, to meters per second, to feet per minute, and so on. No problem, just a little extra math, right? Now imagine that at nighttime the speed limits get lower since it’s harder to see, the speed limit varies the farther you are away from another car, and as long as you don’t exceed the speed limit for 10% of the time during a one hour period you’re technically not breaking the law. Not so easy anymore.

It’s even more complicated than that. In addition to the fact that local noise ordinances vary between municipalities, some of these laws were written decades ago, some have been revised to address more modern issues and methodology, some are very vague and open to interpretation, and some are more detailed then they really need to be. Between all of the legal-speak and acoustical terminology, navigating these ordinances can be a difficult task. For a deeper look into the terminology and practicality behind noise ordinances, check out the “Environmental Acoustics” blog post or contact us.