City Council Holds Hearing to Discuss ‘Unreasonable and Excessive’ Noise Levels

Excessive noise continues to be a top issue for many neighborhoods across the City as Boston continues to grow and expand. The Boston City Council Committee on Environment, Sustainability, and Parks held a hearing on Aug. 29 regarding unreasonable and excessive noise. Sponsored by City Councilor at-Large Althea Garrison, the hearing focused on two panelists who provided information about what the noise levels in the city look like, as well as what the city is doing to manage noise.

Committee Chair Matt O’Malley said they received letters from several residents, including one from a Jamaica Plain resident regarding noise from special events, one each from Dolores Boogdanian and Kathy Greenough of Audubon Circle regarding noise for projects there, and one from Martyn Roetter of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay regarding noise issues from vehicles, construction, digging, and the new trash pickup schedule.

Carl Spector, Commissioner of the Environment Department, was the first panelist at the hearing and talked about what the city already does to regulate noise. “The city can be a noisy place,” he said. “The City and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have enacted laws and regulations to restrict noise.”

He said that currently, several city agencies have responsibility for enforcing certain restrictions. The Boston Police Department deals with excessive noise from motor vehicles, loud parties, and other behavior that is considered “disturbing the peace,” Spector said.  The Inspectional Services Department is responsible for provisions regarding construction hours, and the Air Pollution Control Commission is responsible for regulations regarding excessive noise from permanent heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment.

“Every year, the Environment Department receives about 400 complaints of excessive noise from all neighborhoods directed at a wide variety of sources,” Spector said. He said that the first goal of the department is to work with both the complainant and the generator of the problem to identify the issue and assist them in finding solutions.

A large source of complaints is from airplane noise, which Spector said the City has no jurisdiction over. The Federal Aviation Administration and MassPort have control over that, he said. However, there is a MassPort Advisory Committee that “makes sure that those authorities are aware of and are responding to complaints, but cannot take any direct action itself,” he added.

Though he is not positive about the date, he said that around 30 years ago is when the Air Pollution Control Commission passed existing regulations for the control of noise in Boston, but they are mainly focused on permanent equipment such as HVAC units, Spector said.

“We have one staff person in the Environment Department whose primary responsibility is to respond to complaints,” he said. He said the first approach to responding to these complaints is to make sure people are aware of regulations. “In most cases, we are able to resolve the problem amicably,” Spector said. “Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but that’s what we do.”

He said that a database and record is maintained for all complaints that come to the Environment Department.

Another source of complaints in the city is construction noise and times. Spector said that start time for construction is 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. “If people think there are violations of that, they should call 311 and complaints are directed to the Inspectional Services Department,” he said. “There are times when construction can take place outside of those hours but the construction firm should be getting permission from ISD to do that.”

City Councilor Matt O’Malley said that he encourages his constituents to try talking tot their neighbors first about noise, “but should they feel uncomfortable about doing that, nor not get the positive response…they should of course call 311 and there are always ISD inspectors on site.”

Spector added that they try and involve neighborhood liaisons from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services with issues like these, as they tend to be very familiar with the people in the neighborhoods and those who may be doing construction as well.

The second panelist was Erica Walker, who works at the Community Noise Lab at Boston University. Walker has a doctoral degree in Environmental Health From the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, where she also established nonprofit organization Noise in the City, which measured sound levels in the City of Boston.

Walker said that for Noise in the City, she measured sound levels at 400 sites in the City of Boston. “I developed and deployed the Greater Boston Neighborhood Noise Survey and we saw 1200 responses to that survey,” she said, and subsequently released an online report that includes analysis of data from the 400 sites as well as the survey data and analyzed noise complaint data from the Boston Police Department.

Walker said she also developed and released an app called Noise Score, which allows people to document their noise complaints by measuring sound levels and also recording how the noise makes them feel.

Right now, she works at Boston University, where she founded the Community Noise Lab. “The lab is a little bit different than Noise in the City, now we’re working with specific communities to address very specific noise issues,” she said. Right now within the City of Boston, she is working with Mission Hill, which is concerned about sound levels coming from the Longwood Medical Area as well as construction noise and noise from loud parties. In East Boston, she is working with issues surrounding sound levels from the airport, and in Fenway, she’s working on issues with construction noise and the summer concerts at Fenway Park. She is also working with a number of communities in the Greater Boston area on other particular issues.

The first step is to take real-time sound measurements, she said.  “One of my hypotheses in measuring sound levels in the City is that we do a very superficial job,” Walker said. “We measure how loud it is but sound level is much more complex. Not only is it how loud it is, it’s also what we call the frequency or the character.”

Walker said she is interesting in measuring not only how loud sounds are but also the frequency composition as well as people’s perception of sound. “Sound is one thing; it’s a physical characteristic of our environment, but noise is the part that’s unwanted so i’m definitely interested in understanding how residents perceive sound because I feel like it’s very important to understand perception when we’re dealing with health impacts in particular,” she said.

In the Fenway right now, Walker is measuring sound by Fenway Park and set up several sound monitors before last weekend’s Zac Brown Band concerts. She is also doing a laboratory-based experiment where “we’re taking sounds from the City of Boston and we’re exposing participants to these sound levels and we’re monitoring their cardiovascular stress and mental responses with hopes of seeing how sounds in a typical urban environment impact our health acutely,” she said, as well as community engagement events ranging from hearing screenings to sound walks to lectures. She said a report will be released soon for Fenway’s results.

Walker also said that elected officials “need to be open to listening to people when they comp[lain and not looking at it as something that a lot of people with privilege are complaining about. It’s a real environmental health issue that’s backed up by millions of epidemiological studies.”

She said that about 40 decibels, people begin to experience mood disruption. She said as you move up on the decibel spectrum, it begins to disrupt sleep around 55 decibels. At around 65 decibels, which Walker said is about how loud Boston is on a typical day and sometimes at night as well, “we begin to see cardiovascular-related issues, such as hypertension, increased risk for heart attacks, cardiovascular-related emergency admissions, and cardiovascular related mortality,” she said.

She said that instead of competing Boston’s sound levels with those of other cities, it is more important and more useful to compare it to what studies show impacts health. She said that when it is looked at this way, “sound levels in the City of Boston are concerning.”

“I feel like Boston can be at the forefront of dealing with environmental noise issues,” Walker said, encouraging the City Council to use her resources and others as well. “We should take a risk and begin to be more creative about how we address these things and how we provide data to our residents. I feel like this is the beginning of a conversation that could move and shape the way other cities in the United States and across the world handle noise issues.”

After Erica’s testimony and question and answer, two people signed up for public testimony. The first was Victor Brogna of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association. Brogna said that he has been a Boston resident for about 70 years. “What I see is a cultural change that is amplification has become louder and louder and the loudness has become more standard,” he said. He said that he can frequently hear outdoor concerts at City Hall Plaza from halfway down Hanover St. “I find this certainly annoying,” he said.

He said he can also hear the street performers at Faneuil Hall from “probably a quarter of a mile away” on State Street. “This is a quality of life issue, but I don’t know whether that’s pressing enough to cause a major correction,” Brogna said.”I would like to see the focus on the public health issue and maybe that can bring us to a cultural change.”

Roy Owens also complained about noise levels in Roxbury, as he also said music can be heard from several blocks away. Noise from college parties on Woodville St. and West Cottage St. are also a problem.

“As we become more and more overdeveloped and do not adequately regulate these ever increasing noise levels, our pollution has become a public safety hazard that should alarm all of us,” Councilor Garrison said in her closing statement. “We can do better and my sincere hope is that this hearing today will lead to real solutions and would change how we handle the cases of excessive noise. As an at-large City Councilor, I will continue to be an advocate for all residents who, like me, are concerned about unreasonable noise.”

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