Arlington’s new noise law tightens up on late-night screams and wails, so hush up, revelers

After hearing persistent complaints about the lack of peace and quiet in some high-rise mixed-use districts along the livelier byways of Arlington, the County Board on Saturday substantially tightened its noise control ordinances to target human outbursts for the first time.

The law, which goes into effect July 1, bars any person from “yelling, wailing, shouting or screaming” from 2 to 6 a.m. seven days a week throughout the 27 square-mile burg. The tightened ordinance is even harder on mixed-use districts in the county: Between midnight and 9 a.m., any group of four or more whose celebrations in these areas result in yells, wails, shouts or screams that can be heard inside a residence more than 100 feet away will be violating the law.

Residents of Clarendon and Ballston, particularly, described persistent commotion that reverberates from raucous outdoor bars to quiet bedrooms, keeping hard-working 9-to-5ers awake long after they should be dreaming of their next holiday.

Evening walks are ruined by visitors who spent the afternoon “liquoring up,” as one Ballston resident said. The neighborhood, said resident Severin Perez, is “now viewed as a place to come to drink to excess . . . yes, we need to protect our commercial interests, but there are also the rights of residents.”

Owners or managers of outdoor cafes, rooftop bars or similar establishments that permit such noise, as well as individuals causing a racket, may be charged with a civil or criminal violation.

Criminal fines have been increased from $25 to at least $100 up to $2,500, upon conviction. Even first-time civil fines have been boosted to $250.

“The language we just worked out will probably never be used,” said board chairman Jay Fisette, emphasizing that “this is a problem-solving tool, not a punishment.”

The board, and many of the residents who choose to live in the urban areas of Arlington, don’t want to kill the golden goose of a lively nightlife, even if it does come with a bit of squawking.

“We’re not Mayberry RFD, but we’re not Manhattan on the Potomac either,” said board member John Vihstadt.

About half the county’s tax base is from non-residential property owners. The Rosslyn-Clarendon-Ballston corridor, once a bedraggled series of neighborhoods along Wilson Boulevard, has become nationally known for transit-oriented development that offers shopping, nightlife and upscale housing.

Yet Fisette and the county staff bragged that this noise ordinance revision that targets “over-conversation,” or the human voice, might be the first in the region. Code enforcement manager Gary Greene said other jurisdictions have said they will closely watch what Arlington does to address the loud cries of the night owls and will likely follow suit.

The revision to the noise ordinance became necessary after the Virginia Supreme Court in 2009 unanimously ruled unconstitutional the noise control ordinance of the city of Virginia Beach due to its vagueness, as it relied on the standard of what a “reasonable person” would find too loud. Arlington government officials engaged the volunteers of neighborhood civic associations, businesses, the Ballston and Clarendon complainants, and the county attorney’s office to set a standard for excessive noise and find a solution.

Major exceptions to the new ordinance are the six private swimming clubs in Arlington, which will be allowed to hold their swim-and-dive contests, and related matches, practices and events between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., without triggering violations of the noise rules. Representatives of some of those clubs said they have run their events for decades with few complaints and they work with surrounding neighbors to solve sound concerns.

Many bars and restaurants have similar civic-mindedness, residents said, but it only takes a few over-served loudmouths to disrupt a quiet night.

“Younger revelers have given themselves permission to scream and yell after 10 p.m.,” said Ed O’Brien of Clarendon, who added that he is often awakened at 2 a.m. as barflies “stagger back to their cars.”

Lee Austin, a Ballston resident for 25 years, agreed.

“For 23 of those 25 years, no problem,” he said. “A quantum change occurred two years ago. What we solicit protection from is the irresponsible establishment that serves too much alcohol to people who have already had too much. We seek no protection from ambient noise from living in an urban environment.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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