The City of Williamsburg passed new noise and nuisance laws this summer, expanding liability for nuisance violators and instituting a complex noise ordinance.
The changes were prompted by a General Assembly bill that allows Virginia localities to require property owners to remove graffiti in a timely manner.
The Williamsburg City Council passed the new nuisance ordinance, which restricts littering, grafitti and other annoyances, at its July meeting. The new law extends liability for violations beyond that of occupants to include property owners and their agents and representatives. It also requires property owners to remove graffiti within 15 days and expands the definition of public nuisance.
Furthermore, punishment for violators was upped from a class three misdemeanor to a class one misdemeanor.
“That doesn’t mean that the court is bound to mete out class one punishment,” City Attorney Joe Phillips said at the July City Council meeting, “but it can go that high, i.e. a $1,500 fine and a year in jail.”
The city’s new noise law stems from an April Virginia Supreme Court decision, which struck down Virginia Beach’s similar noise law, disturbing to a “reasonable person,” as too vague.
Since the April court ruling, Virginia Beach has restricted noise in neighborhoods to 55 decibels, about as loud as a dishwasher and five decibels softer than normal conversation, outside a house after 10 p.m.
Williamsburg’s new noise law differs from Virginia Beach’s new ordinance. Instead, the city’s new law specifies 11 situations that Phillips said account for almost every noise complaint.
The situations include television, radio or musical instruments audible across residential lines, horns or whistles in general, yelling or shouting between 11 p.m. and 7a.m. and gatherings of 10 or more people lasting 30 or more minutes that is not contained inside and is audible across property lines.
Phillips noted at the council’s August work session that the new ordinance is similar to that used in Blacksburg, Va., home to Virginia Tech. In fact, he said, much of the ordinance was copied from Blacksburg’s municipal code.
As a catch all, the city also specified maximum noise levels to be referenced in the case of an unforeseen situation. In residential areas, noise is limited to 65 decibels between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and 55 decibels
between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Normal conversation averages around 60 decibels.
First-time violators face a class 2 misdemeanor charge, which carries a $300 fine. Subsequent violations within a one-year period warrant $500 fines.
Council member Paul Freiling ’83 questioned the radio and television situation, which applied all day under the original proposal.
“If somebody’s sitting on their porch and happens to have a radio on, and the radio can be heard 11 feet away, and their property line is ten feet from the porch, then they are by definition here violating the noise ordinance when, if they were simply out mowing their lawn, they’d be making far more noise than they ever could with the radio,” Freiling said.
Phillips confirmed that Freiling’s scenario was correct.
“I guess I have a little bit of a — and I understand the challenges here, and the difficulties here — but I have a little bit of a concern about this, and perhaps it’s unfounded,” Freiling said. “But I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a potential for situations to exist where there are already contentious relations between neighbors that could become exacerbated when this sort of tool comes into somebody’s arsenal, to get back at a neighbor for some other perceived offense, just to make their lives miserable.”
“That certainly is a chance that exists,” Phillips responded. “Unfortunately, we have no ability to use a reasonable person standard anymore, which would come into play and apply to what you’re talking about.”
Williamsburg Police Department Chief of Police Mike Yost testified that amending hours to the television and radio situation would not burden police. He noted that while over 400 noise complaints were registered last year, few made it to court.
“I could count them on my hand, the number of summonses we actually issued, because the officers really work hard at mitigating these things … and most of the time people comply,” Yost told the council. “When they don’t, they’ll write a summons.”
After some discussion, the council voted to amend the ordinance for television and radio noise across property lines to apply between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Freiling also questioned events pertaining to the College of William and Mary. College-sponsored events on campus property are exempt from the ordinance, but events hosted by groups other than the College, are not.
Although he expressed concern that events such as tailgates at the Alumni House, located on the edge of campus, could be in violation of the ordinance, Freiling did not pursue the matter further.
The new noise ordinance went into effect Sunday, Aug. 23.