D.C. Council Gives Preliminary Approval to Noise Bill

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

After intense and loud debate, the D.C. Council gave initial approval yesterday to noise legislation that would quiet demonstrators in residential neighborhoods but allow them to pump up the volume downtown and in front of hotels.

The controversial Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2008 had been tabled by a narrow majority in February. Under amendments approved yesterday in an 8 to 5 vote, it would restrict noncommercial public speech during the day to no greater than 80 decibels or 10 decibels above the ambient noise level when measured from 50 feet.

The legislation originally used 70 decibels as its barometer. The council will vote on a final reading in June.

The 10-decibel difference, included in a number of amendments proposed by council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), did not placate some of his colleagues. They questioned how a few residents' complaints about the amplified commentary of preachers on H Street NE last year had turned into a citywide measure that they said infringed on the right to protest, especially labor unions'.

"This is not a citywide problem. This is an H Street problem, and everybody knows it," council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), normally mild-mannered, shouted into the microphone during the meeting. Her passionate speech from the dais caused a noticeable pause in the council chambers' usual chatter.

Supporters of the bill questioned how labor organizations could have garnered enough votes to table the legislation in February.

David A. Catania (I-At Large), who voted for the bill, said the council could not condone "a free-for-all to pander to one group" and cited the example of a carpenters union's protests.

The union was picketing across the street from Stevens Elementary at 21st and L streets NW near his home, he said. The principal was in tears over the noise, Catania said, adding: "It was torture."

He had told the same story during a contentious discussion about the legislation during the council's breakfast yesterday.

Other council members pointed out that permitted noise levels are much lower in other cities, including New York. They also said a resident's right to tranquillity at home was as important as the right to protest.

Brown's amendments also would require inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to enforce the noise provisions, instead of police. Most council members on both sides of the issue said they worried police would automatically halt protests if faced with a noise complaint. Also, DCRA is equipped with the proper noise meters.

The amendments allow for demonstrations, albeit quieter ones, in front of hotels. That was a concern of the Unite Here Local 25 Mid-Atlantic Joint Board, which represents hotel workers.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) also had proposed using DCRA inspectors, but the council rejected his amendments in a 7 to 6 vote.

Evans moved to table the legislation in February. He drew the wrath of H Street residents, who put speakers across the street from his home and made enough noise one weekend to wake and anger his neighbors in Georgetown.

Evans still reminded council members that a labor union had once successfully sued the city over the noise issue.

Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) joined Evans and Bowser in dissent to the bill. "A crowd of 100 people walking a picket line will exceed the limits in this bill," Mendelson said.

John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, said the council had essentially shut up unions. "What happened here is much graver," he said. "You have the right to say what you want, but you can't be heard."

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