Council should make noise law permanent

It's time for the Olympia City Council to adopt permanent rules to control noise in the downtown business district.

The council has had a temporary ordinance in place for more than a year. Experience shows that the ordinance has reduced the number of noise complaints and that just about all parties agree that the ordinance is good for the city and not a hindrance to the city’s vibrant downtown music scene.

It’s time to make the law permanent. That action could come as soon as tonight’s council meeting.

The city had no noise ordinance governing downtown nightclubs when complaints of excessive noise were filed. Downtown residents said they were unable to sleep or concentrate some nights – especially in the summer months when club doors were open and the music reverberated through the neighborhood.

Councilman Jeff Kingsbury pushed for an ordinance that set parameters of acceptable levels of noise.

Supporters of the proposed law, including some downtown residents, said it would create an objective standard for evaluating noise complaints and benefit the mostly low-income residents downtown.

Opponents of the proposed law – including, but not limited to – bar owners and musicians cried foul. They said the ordinance would force some bars to close and hurt the city’s music scene, which has boasted acts such as Nirvana and Sleater-Kinney.

At one public meeting on the ordinance in the summer of 2008, almost everyone in attendance raised their hands when asked who opposed the noise standards.

Patrick Mapp, owner of Danger Room Comics, said he hasn’t heard a lot of complaints about noise. “What’s the primary motivation behind this?” Mapp asked.

Chris Bauermeister wanted to know why the onus of compliance is on existing clubs and not places being built.

At one point the Olympia Planning Council refused to give either a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the noise ordinance. The advisors offered no recommendation.

To their credit members of the Olympia City Council weighed the pros and cons, listened to all sides and put the ordinance through numerous drafts in an attempt to balance peoples’ right to peace and quiet against the rights of business owners to make a living in the bar/entertainment industry. It is a delicate balance, but the council was able to craft a reasonable – albeit temporary – noise ordinance and pass it on a 6-1 vote.

At the time Ruthie Snyder, a downtown code-enforcement officer, said the ordinance would not be used to close down loud clubs. “The intent of this is not to seek violators,” she said. “The intent of this is to seek compliance.”

Olympia officials also lived up to their promise to police downtown nightspots and work with club owners to minimize noise complaints.

The fears expressed by skeptics have failed to materialize. The council’s ordinance has been a success.

Only a handful of complaints have been logged and even Josh Brown, who owns the Royal Lounge on Capitol Way admits, “I’m still not for the noise ordinance, but it hasn’t really affected me very much.”

Brown, whose club was the target of a couple of complaints, installed insulation in his business and was able to avoid additional problems. “I haven’t seen a lot of impact” from the noise ordinance, Brown said. “Basically, it gave the city a tool to say, ‘This is too much.’ ”

He added that although “no bar owner is for the noise ordinance,” he hasn’t sensed that the music scene has suffered.

That was the city’s goal.

“The intent of the council was to work with the businesses – not penalize them – and that’s certainly the way it’s gone,” said Snyder, the enforcement officer.

“I think it’s a great thing for a town to have,” Snyder said of the ordinance. “It’s pretty quantifiable and reasonable.”

Kingsbury, the primary advocate for the ordinance agrees. “It’s a progressive measure in anticipation of downtown housing,” Kingsbury said. “That’s why we did it.”

With the temporary ordinance set to expire at month’s end, it’s time for Kingsbury and his council colleagues to adopt a permanent noise ordinance and renew the city’s commitment to work with club owners for compliance.