Seeking A Ringing Endorsement

St. John Neumann Catholic Church was ordered to stop ringing its bells in December 2004. The issue is with the Board of Supervisors.
St. John Neumann Catholic Church was ordered to stop ringing its bells in December 2004. The issue is with the Board of Supervisors. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006

In the 16 months since Fairfax County silenced St. John Neumann's bells for exceeding noise limits, parishioners and staffers have tried to find a way to remain good neighbors and still keep their traditional call to prayer.

"It hurts, because the bells are part of our faith," said the Rev. Thomas Murphy, the church's pastor.

Sentiments along Pegasus Lane, a winding, dead-end street bordering the Reston church grounds, run roughly along the lines of: good riddance.

The bells "were much, much too loud," said Judy Forst, who has lived on the street since 1968.

Church bells, which have marked everything from weddings to the ends of wars, are joining car alarms, jackhammers and loud parties as noxious noises that threaten quality of life. Concerns about bells have recently triggered community debates in North Carolina, Florida and Upstate New York. A Massachusetts engineering firm's Web site promotes a system of acoustic screens it developed to redirect chime sounds away from residential areas.

Bells caused Mount Olivet United Methodist Church to run afoul of some North Arlington neighborhoods in 2004. Although it was already within legal limits, the church lowered the volume of its digital chimes three times. Now, one Mount Olivet volunteer said, the bells are so faint "you can't even hear them inside the church."

Since St. John Neumann was ordered to stop using the bells in December 2004, the church has been trapped in the county's regulatory cul-de-sac. To ring them again, it must have either an exemption from Fairfax's noise ordinance or a change in the law that puts it in compliance.

The matter sits with a Board of Supervisors committee that considers proposed changes to zoning laws, but it will be at least a year before the panel makes a decision. Last month, the Development Process Review Committee decided that about two dozen other cases take higher priority, including the placement of adult video stores.

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), the committee chairman, said he had hoped the various stakeholders could have reached a solution.

"It seems kind of sad that we have to do this," he said. "It's a minor problem that you think could be worked out."

The $50,000 electronic bell system was part of a sprawling, $12 million expansion that St. John Neumann completed in April 2004, doubling its capacity from 500 to 1,000. The project was unpopular because it enlarged the church parking lot and destroyed part of the woods that buffered the homes on Pegasus Lane.

The bells were a first for St. John Neumann -- the old chapel didn't have any. When they started ringing in three-minute bursts -- three times weekdays, once Saturdays and before each of five Sunday Masses, beginning at 7:30 a.m. -- neighbors complained. County inspectors found that the bells broke the county noise limit of 55 decibels by a wide margin, registering about 75, roughly equivalent to the noise of a vacuum cleaner.

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