Fairfax County adopts new noise ordinance after four years without one

December 3, 2013

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted a new noise ordinance that will enable police to ticket residents with loud parties or incessant barking dogs, after the county had gone for more than four years without a valid noise law.

The supervisors said the law was merely a stopgap measure to remedy a void in enforcement, and a number of residents at the board meeting said it didn’t go far enough. Residents who live near a Reston dog park said it wouldn’t help them, and others who said they had normal dogs who bark occasionally said the law was too harsh. Residents who live near industrial parks or buildings with loud equipment also said it wasn’t sufficient.

Fairfax had to take action because of a 2009 Virginia Supreme Court ruling that threw out Virginia Beach’s noise ordinance. The court ruled that Virginia Beach’s law, which prohibited any “unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary” noise deemed “detrimental to the life or health of persons of reasonable sensitivity,” was too vague and therefore unconstitutional.

Fairfax’s ordinance was similar, defining a violation as “any unnecessary sound which annoys, disturbs or perturbs reasonable persons with normal sensibilities.” So, Fairfax’s county attorneys advised the police in 2009 to stop enforcing it. Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said he had requested an amendment to the law not long after that, but the county administration did not move on it.

Although Fairfax police said they could resolve most noise complaints without a legal summons, the increasing number of complaints made them seek the enforcement tool in advance of the holiday season. The new law defines a noise violation as any sound “that is audible in any other person’s residential dwelling with the doors and windows to the other person’s residential dwelling closed.”

Under the new rules, a first offense would be a Class 3 misdemeanor that could come with a fine of not more than $500.

Residents who live near the Reston dog park said the new law “ignores the impact of noise coming from outside the neighborhood,” said Robert Sawicki. Animal noise in general is not defined, and Betsy McArdle of Springfield said she had a neighbor with a rooster that was up before dawn. She said she now sleeps in her basement, her husband can’t make business calls and her windows have been sealed.

The law also doesn’t address industrial noise. Frank Kalder of the Fairfax area said the fans at two office buildings force him to keep his windows closed at all times and “will probably drive me away.”

On the other hand, Nancy Furlong of Springfield noted that she has a dog who sometimes barks, and “I have a neighbor who complains. I think it needs to be addressed. I think it’s reasonable to expect that dogs do bark.”

The supervisors, who approved the measure unanimously, asked for more clarification on dog barking in particular, and Assistant County Attorney Cynthia Tianti said, “If the language is not tight enough, we can tighten it.” The county plans a more sweeping revision of its noise code, with more public outreach and hearings, early next year. Arlington is also revising its noise law.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998. In 2011 he launched The State of NoVa blog, a state strictly defined as the boundaries of four counties and one city: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Alexandria.
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