Courier Staff Writer
Complaints from Ottumwans about noisy neighbors has led the Ottumwa City Council to consider setting a curfew in order to lower the volume of nighttime activities.
The council discussed amending the city’s noise prohibition ordinance to enact a curfew on noisy businesses, motor vehicles and equipment at their meeting this week.
Currently, the ordinance states that the sound emanating from sound amplification systems used in motor vehicles, businesses and on hand-held devices must not be able to be heard from 50 feet away or farther.
“There’s been discussion since I’ve been here regarding the noise ordinance and how to be fair to businesses and yet be fair to residents and trying to balance the needs of both,” said City Attorney Joni Keith. “We thought this proposal may help do that, particularly with curfew.”
The code states that public safety vehicles, public sporting events, church bells and chimes and authorized school activities are all exempted from the noise ordinance.
The main concern here, Keith said, is complaints from citizens about recreational vehicles on private properties being loud “all day and all night.”
“What I proposed in the ordinance was to have a noise curfew, particularly for businesses and recreational vehicles on private properties during nighttime hours,” she said. “I wanted to expand the ordinance to ... maybe have a curfew to help residents who have neighbors who have recreational vehicles.”
The proposed ordinance would expand on the current noise disturbances in the code to include vehicles, equipment, businesses, weapons and recreational vehicles. The proposed curfew would be set between 7 p.m. or sunset (whichever is later) until 8 a.m. During this time, citizens would not be allowed to operate machines, tools, equipment or recreational motorized vehicles “where the sound is plainly audible at least 50 or more feet from the property line.”
Keith used the Elbow Room as an example of how the noise ordinance has affected a business.
The same night that a minor was picked up at the Elbow Room last month, its manager was charged with violating the noise prohibition ordinance.
“In the past, the Elbow Room was told to keep their doors open, but we got them to shut the doors,” Keith said. “On this particular night, evidently when patrons were coming in they would open the doors and the noise was heard several blocks away. The manager admitted to me in court that he was told a month before by police officers that he needed to keep the noise down. He told me flat out that he did not reduce the sound whatsoever, though, since no one else complained in that month.”
Councilman Mitch Niner challenged that a tolerable level of sound is different for every individual.
“When I reviewed noise ordinances around the state, a lot of cities have the same 50-foot rule, some even 100 feet,” Keith said. “Most complaints are made by private citizens. The police are not proactive on this issue. They try to get the individual to turn it down momentarily. If they don’t, eventually they will ticket that individual.”
Councilmen Bob Meyers and Brian Morgan went to the Elbow Room with its owner, Steve Palen, to get a feel for how loud the music is.
“It was noisy,” Meyers said.
There had been talk at one point of buying decibel meters for the police officers to accurately gauge the level of noise, Keith said.
“But we felt that wasn’t necessary because our courts have confirmed over and over again that the violations can be based upon what the officer heard,” Keith said. “The judge looks at the credibility of the officers and defendant and makes a determination on whether there is sufficient evidence to support the citation.”
In the end, the council could not make a unanimous decision on the possibility of buying decibel meters.
“I think decibel meters would complicate the police officers’ job,” Keith said.
Keith said since she didn’t receive any specific direction, the issue is still in discussion.
Two separate ordinances became interchanged this week and confused the discussion. In the city code, the aforementioned noise prohibition ordinance exists, but there is also another ordinance called “disturbing the peace by a motor vehicle,” which a councilman and citizen mistakenly referenced.
The latter ordinance says: “A person commits a simple misdemeanor when that person operates a motor vehicle in such a manner that the peace and quiet of any neighborhood, street, public place, park, public or private building or area, assembly or person, by loud and raucous noise, is disturbed so as to cause unreasonable distress.”
Niner expressed concerns that under the proposed noise prohibition ordinance, drivers would be ticketed for squealing their tires or revving their engines. But Keith said the proposal discussed this week is only concerned with sound amplification systems. Any other noises from vehicles are covered under the “disturbing the peace by a motor vehicle” ordinance.
Ottumwan Martin Erck said he has lost 30-40 percent of his hearing “because of loud exhaust by motorcycles.
“I let some of it go because of where I chose to live,” said Erck, who lives across the street from a local tavern. “I did not choose for people to buy devices illegally and put them on automobiles and motorcycles. I’m not going to put up with it. I think every motorcycle, all loud music, they should pull them over and ticket them.”
Erck’s complaints also fell under the “disturbing the peace by a motor vehicle” ordinance, not the noise prohibition ordinance on the council’s agenda.