Anti-noise bill meets praise, concern

City Council proposal backed by residents, but some critics worry about violated free-speech rights


A City Council proposal to substantially increase penalties against noisy neighbors may provide a painful civics lesson for raucous college students renting apartments and houses in North Baltimore.

While the proposed measure aims to address excessive noise throughout Baltimore, it appears to have been spurred by neighborhood complaints about commotion caused by off-campus students from Loyola College and Towson University.

"This issue is probably the most significant one that we face," said Sam Stevenson, president of the Lake Evesham Community Association. "[Noise] is the most consistently discussed topic of conversation" at community meetings.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about a noise ordinance proposed by the Baltimore City Council misstated the address of a house party at which several college students were arrested. The house is in the 400 block of E. Lake Ave.

In Lake Evesham, wedged between York Road and Bellona Avenue south of Lake Avenue, several single-family houses are rented to college students, Stevenson said. There are also many townhouses along Northern Parkway, the neighborhood's southern boundary, occupied by Loyola and Towson undergraduates.

Stevenson and other community leaders said their neighborhoods are troubled by the stereotypical antics of college students, mostly loud late-night parties. In early October, city police arrested 32 students for a party at a house in the 800 block of E. Lake Ave.

"All of the guys who live in there are Sigma Pi [fraternity] kids," said Susanna Craine, a Towson spokesman.

A Sigma Pi member contacted last night - who declined to be identified because he is not an authorized fraternity spokesman - acknowledged the members are aware of problems at the house and said the group is trying to respect the neighborhood. The fraternity's president could not be reached.

All of the students who were arrested were released from custody. But if the proposed law had been in place, they might not have had a house to come home to.

The council proposal, introduced by Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, provides for punishments including eviction, $1,000 fines, yearlong imprisonment and the city's right to "close" offending properties.

The proposal would ban daytime noise in residential areas over 55 decibels - about the volume of a loud conversation.

Excessive noise would become a public nuisance - joining prostitution and lewdness, gambling and drug sales - if the property owner were 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 escape penalties by posting bonds and promising to refrain from excessive noise, or by taking the city to court.

As the council considers the legislation, questions have been raised about enforcement and possible threats to free speech.

"On first blush it sounds a little extreme," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday.

But, he added, he believes all city residents have a responsibility to respect their neighbors. He said the proposal might have been born of frustration from residents who have had a hard time proving violations of the existing ordinance.

Under Baltimore's health code, 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. On average, fewer than a dozen tickets are written each year.

"It's hard to prove," O'Malley said. "You have to be there at just the right time."

Several lawyers said the city will have to be careful not to offend constitutional protections of free speech by selectively enforcing the law.

Charles Keller III, a lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged a noise ordinance in Syracuse, N.Y., said such nuisance laws can face legal challenges if they are used as "pretexts to stop and detain someone and to search them."

But David C. Vladeck, an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said all cities have the right to enforce such laws.

"Noise can be viewed properly by the city as another form of pollution," Vladeck said.

Chad Foice, president of the North Charles Business Association, said he is concerned with the 55-decibel threshold because several establishments in his neighborhood provide outdoor seating.

"It is something I'll watch in case we have to get involved," said Foice, general manager of Rocky Run, a restaurant and bar on St. Paul Street.

Another business owner, however, said she would welcome the ordinance. Alicia Horn, owner of Birds of a Feather in Fells Point, said her single-malt scotch bar is a quiet establishment where customers sip drinks to classical music. But she said the noise outside her Aliceanna Street bar - and her apartment upstairs - is unbearable.

She said she has a white-noise machine in her bedroom to get to sleep. She said the proposed legislation would provide more ammunition to make offenders, including bar owners, more accountable.

"I hope [the legislation] goes through," Horn said. "But it has to be enforced."

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