By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
Fairfax County officials have issued a ringing non-endorsement of the bells at St. John Neumann's in Reston, ruling that they must toll within the limits of the county's noise ordinance or not at all.
The Board of Supervisors asked the zoning staff this year to see whether the law could be amended to accommodate the church, whose bells ring at a volume slightly higher than the 55-decibel maximum permitted in residential areas.
But James P. Zook, director of Fairfax's Department of Planning and Zoning, recently told the board in a memo that creating an exception for church bells could be constitutionally problematic, leaving the county open to court challenge.
"Localities cannot enact different standards for noise emanating from a place of worship," Zook said. If Fairfax did that, he said, the new rules would have to apply to "all other types of bells, chimes or carillons." Zook noted, however, that at least two other cities, Morgantown, W.Va., and Seattle, did make exceptions for church bells.
St. John's, a Catholic church in south Reston, installed a $50,000 electronic bell system in 2004 as part of a major expansion. When the bells began ringing, in three-minute bursts -- three times on weekdays, once on Saturdays and before each of five Sunday Masses, starting at 7:30 a.m. -- neighbors complained.
The county discovered that the bells registered at an average of 75 decibels (roughly equivalent to a vacuum cleaner at close range), which is considerably above the 55-decibel limit in residential areas.
The church reduced the power flowing to the three bells, which brought the reading down to 60 decibels, softer (about the sound of an air conditioner at 50 feet) but still above the limit.
The dispute has kept the bells silent for 23 months.
"It's frustrating, because the sound is so much a part of our tradition," said the Rev. Thomas Murphy, the church's pastor. "Anybody who has grown up in a city atmosphere is familiar with the ringing of bells."
But the church, named for a 19th-century Philadelphia priest who founded the first national parish for Italian Americans, is in the suburbs, where noise of virtually any kind can become a quality-of-life problem.
Sean Walsh, who has lived on nearby Pegasus Lane for 20 years, said the county's ruling was good news for most of his neighbors.
"No one here is anti-church or anything," Walsh said. "People just want some peace and quiet."
Church members have said the complaints about the bells have come from only a few disgruntled neighbors.
The church says that it is not possible to further reduce the power flowing to the bells. And even if the power could be reduced, the ringing would be so inaudible that the bells would hardly be worth operating, Murphy said.
"We've done as much as we can, according to the manufacturer," he said.
If St. John Neumann were elsewhere, it would be able to ring away. Prince William and Arlington counties allow a daytime maximum of 60 decibels. Montgomery County permits 65 decibels during the day.
Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) will host a community meeting at the church Dec. 11 to discuss the situation. The board could decide to overrule zoning officials and establish an exception for the church. But Hudgins sounded doubtful.
"What's melodious to some people is just not that way to others," she said.