Noisy? Shut up or get out

City Council weighs evicting raucous repeat offenders

November 01, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore home and business owners could face eviction if found guilty of making excessive noise twice in a two-year period, under a City Council proposal introduced last night that equates loud noise with prostitution, drug sales and gambling.

In an effort to clamp down on what supporters say is a leading complaint in many neighborhoods, the proposal bans daytime noise in residential areas over 55 decibels - about the volume of a loud conversation - a move that could muffle raucous house parties and corner bars.

Cities across the country are trying to squelch noise pollution, most notably New York, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg suggested last year that noise violators be fined $45 to $25,000.

But a provision in Baltimore's proposal that allows the city to "close" offending properties appears to be unusually strict.

Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, who introduced the measure during last night's meeting, said the tough approach is the only way to combat the problem of noisy neighbors, whether they're homeowners, fraternities or small businesses.

Violators could also face $1,000 fines and yearlong prison sentences.

"In order for it to be taken seriously, there has to be enforcement," she said.

"It has come to my attention ... that the city needs additional tools."

Excessive noise would become a public nuisance - joining prostitution and lewdness, gambling and drug sales - if the property owner was convicted of violating the ordinance twice or more in two years. Once that happened, the proposal would permit the police commissioner to hold a hearing and "order the closing of the premises" for up to one year.

Owners could get out of the mess by posting bond up to the assessed value of the property and promising to be really quiet.

They could also take the city to court.

"This would give us some more teeth," said Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Fells Point, where residents and bar owners often clash over noise. "This would allow us to provide a much more severe penalty."

Ron Furman, owner of Max's Taphouse, a Fells Point bar formerly known as Max's on Broadway, said he doesn't think his establishment would be affected by the proposal, but he questioned the reasonableness of closing a bar for what he views as minuscule noise violations.

"If they're going to start citing people for 55 decibels, I think that's pretty excessive. You're gonna take away somebody's livelihood," Furman said. "Are they going to start taking away motorcycle licenses, too?"

Gene Carson, 71, who lives on North Calvert Street near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, said the city should do whatever it takes to quiet noisemakers. Lock them up if need be, he said.

"There are a lot of squeals and screams," said Carson, describing a typical weekend night near his home. "They just want to see how loud they can squeal and how many people they can disturb."

The proposal was referred to a council committee that will hold public hearings on it. The full council isn't likely to take a final vote on any plan for months.

Rawlings Blake acknowledged that the measure is a starting point for a discussion on how to handle the problem of noise.

A spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley said his office is reviewing the proposal.

Noise ordinances are frequently harder to enforce than other quality-of-life regulations because noise must be measured by city inspectors or police. Also complicating the issue is that noise from a car stereo or a street-side screamer can wane in an instant.

The city first addressed noise in the 1980s, when council members approved broadening an ordinance that prohibited "disturbing the peace" and set more specific guidelines for unacceptable volume.

Under Baltimore's health code, the city has wide power to enforce sound regulations. The threshold is 55 decibels in residential areas during the day and slightly lower at night. The law lets the city seek judgments of up to $1,000 against offenders or issue $100 citations, city officials said.

Health officials said that on average, fewer than a dozen tickets are written each year, often against such offenders as garbage contractors clearing out trash bins early in the morning.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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