Preparations underway for enforcement of Bluffton's new noise ordinance

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comApril 11, 2014 

Now that the town of Bluffton has a new noise ordinance, officers are preparing to enforce it, according to a police department spokesman.

And bar owners say they'll continue efforts to keep the music down to comply with the new rules approved unanimously Tuesday by Town Council.

Officers will use a device manufactured by Exetech Instruments to check whether outdoor music levels at bars and restaurants exceed 50 decibels from 250 feet away, Capt. Joseph Manning said.

Manning said officers would periodically check noise levels and respond to noise complaints, but would not check noise levels daily.

He said the department is beginning to educate officers on the new rules, which will be enforced immediately. Supervisors in the department were trained Thursday and received decibel meters, he said.

Whether an officer gives a warning or a ticket for a violation would be determined on a case-by-case basis, Manning said. Violators will be subject to a $500 fine or 30 days in jail.

Officers responding to a noise complaint will identify the source, then measure the decibel level 250 feet away, rather than taking a reading at the source of the noise complaint, Manning said.

But Old Town resident Dan Wood, upset about the noise levels in the neighborhood, worries it will be difficult for police to enforce the ordinance.

"How is this going to be enforceable?" he said. "An officer is not going to know how far away 250 feet is, or they're going to go to the same spot to measure it."

Manning said officers responding to a complaint would have to identify the source and measure out 250 feet to take the sound level. He said the town's geographic information systems department and the police were working to map out the 250-foot zones around Bluffton.

Officers would use those zones with their patrol vehicle's GPS, Manning said. He added that it would be the officer's discretion whether to issue a violation.

Old Town Dispensary, which has received many of the complaints about noise, will continue recent measures to monitor and manage music levels, general manager Marquis Terry said.

Terry, who books the bands that play at the restaurant, said music acts are vetted to make sure they do not play at excessive volume. As a further guard, the restaurant controls the music's volume through its sound system.

Terry said the restaurant also does not use speakers that have "woofers," which are commonly associated with heavy bass.

Concerns about bass and drum noise were raised at Tuesday's meeting after it was discovered the decibel-measuring devices do not effectively measure bass.

Terry said bass won't be a problem for the restaurant, which will comply with the ordinance even though it disagrees with it.

"We respect the decision of the town, but a loud car going by could make the same noise," he said. "Bass hasn't been a regular issue, but ultimately it's the town's decision. We want to work with them."

Despite Town Council's approval of the new rules, the issue of noise in Old Town won't likely fade away.

Councilwoman Karen Lavery said she intended to introduce an amendment at the Town Council's May 13 meeting to require a special permit for bass and drums to be played outdoors.

And Wood said he plans to ask council to consider changing the rules on how the music is measured -- he wants the measuring distance reduced to 125 feet or to have the noise measured at the edge of the bars' property lines.

"The town's staff has done excellent work on the ordinance, but the 250 feet is just something they came up with," he said.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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