Greenfield police chief says reasonable enforcement of noise ordinance will be challenging
GREENFIELD — A recently passed noise ordinance has the potential to be abused, says Greenfield’s police chief.
Chief Robert Haigh said he will need to read through and study the new five-page ordinance, which passed by a Town Council vote of 10-3 Wednesday, and have all of his officers do the same.
The ordinance was written by members of the Council’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee under the leadership of Council Vice President Hillary Hoffman.
A proposed noise ordinance was originally submitted by a Greenfield resident, but Hoffman said it was too restrictive, so Appointments and Ordinances did its research and wrote something meant to be a baseline, not intended to cause an influx of calls to police.
“I think we’ll have to have some training on how to enforce it,” said Haigh. “We are going to have to be very careful, because every situation is going to be different.”
Haigh said first police are going to have to understand what the ordinance is, the motivation behind it and what it is trying to accomplish.
Then, police are going to have to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis to determine what is reasonable for each one.
“We’ll have to be very careful and do our due diligence,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re all on the same page. I think it’s very possible that calls to us will increase.”
The new ordinance forbids anyone from creating “plainly audible” sound within 50 feet of others. That sound includes music, yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling, singing or any other loud noise, between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Precinct 3 Town Councilor Brickett Allis said he is concerned that people will not be able to legally have a one-time graduation party on their property, because there is no mechanism in town to allow something like that to be exempted or permitted.
Residents and business owners are forbidden to use a power saw, drill, grinder, lawn mower, leaf blower, lawn or garden tool or similar tool between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday or between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. on Sunday.
The council did extend the time someone can throw a party on Saturday to midnight.
Haigh, who was police chief in Orange before taking the job in Greenfield last year, said Orange does not have a noise ordinance, but police have always answered calls concerning noise and disturbances anyway. He said the same has been true for Greenfield.
He said the town and police have to make sure they don’t seem arbitrary in their enforcement of the noise ordinance — police will be the main enforcers and the Health Department could be called in some instances.
Haigh said that it will be difficult not to seem arbitrary, because people have different ideas about noise and what is annoying or disturbing.
“There is potential for this ordinance to be abused by a neighbor who is trying to get back at another neighbor,” said the chief.
Already many noise calls
Haigh said police already get many calls about noise and when they do, they speak with the person or people being accused of making the noise.
“Sometimes they don’t know we’re coming and we hear it ourselves,” he said. “Other times, it has stopped by the time we get there. Still, it’s all about what the person or officer thinks is unreasonable noise.”
Haigh said, just as has been the case before now, there won’t be a lot police can do if noise has stopped by the time they get there, except to warn an alleged noisemaker.
The new ordinance calls for a warning for the first offense and a $50 fine for every subsequent offense. It isn’t clear the way the ordinance is written whether that means for the same party, for instance, or for another incident that happens on another day.
“If we can’t catch someone in the act, we will have to rely on the person reporting the violation,” said Haigh. “That means that person will have to file and sign a complaint, so it won’t be able to be done anonymously.”
Montague Police Chief Charles “Chip” Dodge said Montague has a noise ordinance, but it pertains more to noise coming from bars late at night or large, out-of-control parties, not the use of lawn mowers.
Dodge said noise is typically handled on a case-by-case basis by police in Montague. He said he believes an ordinance that is too broad can present problems, because in most cases each incident has be to handled in a different way.
“If we receive a complaint about noise, we investigate and if warranted, give a warning,” said Dodge. “If it keeps up, an arrest or summons may result.”
Dodge said noise complaints are difficult to deal with because unless the noise is outrageous, everyone has their own idea of what is too much.
Councilors weigh in
While Greenfield town councilors disagreed Wednesday on whether a noise ordinance would increase the number of calls to police — Precinct 1 Councilor Marian Kelner said she doesn’t believe it will — Haigh said there will be people who have never called police in the past, but now because there is an ordinance with some teeth to back their complaint, will.
“When there’s an ordinance for something like this, people believe they have the right to have it enforced,” he said. “They expect it to be enforced.”
Town Clerk Deborah Tuttle said she had already received several calls from residents Thursday morning, the morning after the vote, asking for copies of the ordinance.
Haigh said the danger is that what is “plainly audible” and disruptive to one person may not be to another, so some people will get away with more than others and issues of fairness may come up.
The ordinance defines plainly audible as “... any sound that can be detected by a person using his or her unaided hearing faculties.”
An example used in the ordinance is, “If the sound source under investigation is a portable or personal vehicular sound amplification or reproduction device, the enforcement officer need not determine the title of the song, specific words or the artist performing the song. The detection of the rhythmic base component of the music is sufficient to constitute a plainly audible sound.”
The Excessive Noise Ordinance is also known as Chapter 107 of the town’s ordinances.
The authors of the new ordinance wrote in the ordinance that excessive and unnecessary noise is a significant threat to health, welfare, safety and quality of life and causes sleep disturbances, creates anxiety and distress and can even lead to aggressive behavior in some people.
Town Council President Mark Wisnewski, who brought the idea of creating a noise ordinance to fellow councilors after receiving suggestions from some of his constituents, said towns and cities don’t pass laws allowing people to make lots of noise, but do pass laws allowing their residents to lead peaceful and quiet lives.
At-large Councilor Mark Maloni said he was concerned about a few things in the ordinance before it was amended Wednesday night and he voted to pass it.
Maloni said that noise resonating 25 feet was too close a distance to become an issue, so it was changed to 50 feet. He said he likes to play acoustic guitar on his porch, but that could be a reason for someone to complain if left at 25 feet.
Precinct 5 Councilor David Singer suggested another rewrite of the ordinance before the vote was taken, saying if councilors felt it wasn’t perfectly written, it could create problems, but he voted “yes” when the vote was called.
Allis said he is afraid the new ordinance is going to be onerous on the police department, which is operating on a bare bones budget as is.
“There are so many other things police could be concentrating on,” said Allis. “The drug problem for one.”
Members of the Council’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee said one of the biggest concerns it heard about noise was Dumpsters being emptied at 5 a.m. and the new ordinance will address that issue.
Hearing attendance sparse
The committee held two public hearings on the ordinance. Seventeen people spoke and almost everyone supported a noise ordinance, though some thought it should be stricter, while others didn’t.
The council also received several emails over the past few months from residents who supported the town creating a noise ordinance.
The councilors who did not support the ordinance — Allis, Precinct 4 Councilor Steven Ronhave and Precinct 7 Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud — said they either didn’t support a noise ordinance at all, or thought the one passed Wednesday night goes too far.
Hoffman, who worked for more than a year on the ordinance, said she wishes more people would have come forward with their concerns before the night of the vote.
“Our meetings, agendas and public hearings were posted,” she said. “It’s too bad that if you had really strong feelings, you didn’t speak out.”
Hoffman said Greenfield’s noise ordinance was fashioned after one in Worcester.
“We were looking for a baseline quality-of-life standard,” she said. “We are hoping this encourages neighbors to get along and act polite.”
Precinct 2 Councilor Alfred Siano said he believes everyone is entitled to peace where they live.
Precinct 9 Councilor Norman Hirschfeld, who tried to call the question and take a vote before other councilors had a chance to express their views, said he is sensitive to noise and believes people need something they can use to get results if a neighbor is making unreasonable noise.
Hirschfeld’s request to stop all discussion on the matter before it even got started was defeated.
Ronhave said neighbors should work things out themselves. He said enforcement is going to be a challenge for the town.
“We should be taking a practical look at the police budget and working to keep it balanced,” he said.
Renaud said she does not believe noise is something that should be legislated.
“People have a right to quiet enjoyment in their homes,” said Wisnewski, who was defeated by Isaac Mass in the recent town election and will step down as at-large councilor and president on June 30.
Wisnewski said he believes the ordinance may result in fewer calls to police over time.
“This really isn’t going to change anything,” said Wisnewski. “You can call police now if you have a problem and you’ll be able to call under this ordinance.”
Haigh said he hopes the noise ordinance is used sensibly by everyone.