If the way a soldier maintains his weapon is any indicator of how seriously he takes the fight, observe Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa with his decimeter:

"I don't even really know how this thing works. We just found it in some closet this week and put some batteries into it," Lippa said, examining the gray, palm-size device used to measure noise levels.

No one in this county south of Fredericksburg can remember anybody being charged with a noise violation in the roughly 20 years the ordinance has been in place, which may account for Lippa's blase attitude. But growth in the Washington and Richmond areas is literally having reverberations midway between them.

Caroline officials say people are a bit less careful than they used to be about keeping the noise down, prompting the county to take another look at the ordinance in hopes of making it easier to follow. With the recent approval of three development projects that will bring 11,000 new homes to the county of 22,800 people, county officials figure now is as good a time as any to pay more attention to noise control.

Caroline is among many communities on Washington's fringes that are rethinking how much sound is acceptable. County officials are considering whether to toss the 22-year-old decimeters for new ones or to adopt a broader, gadget-free rule. Neighboring Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County recently stiffened their noise ordinances. In Maryland, Charles County is considering adopting an ordinance, and in Delaware, Rehoboth Beach hired a consultant last year to help write a code that balanced the desires of new, more well-heeled residents with those of the owners of older nightspots.

In Fredericksburg, the rules were changed after music clubs opened in the historic residential downtown, which serves as an entertainment hub for the once-pastoral region. The city's pedestrian scene is also accented by motorcyclists who stop and then rev up again.

The Spotsylvania measure was revised as the county began promoting itself as a tourist destination and holding more large events, such as Civil War reenactments and outdoor festivals. Sheriff's deputies in Spotsylvania and Stafford counties -- two of the 20 fastest-growing in the nation -- say one of the most common noise issues today is the soundtrack of suburbia: construction.

"Trash compactors, forklifts, trucks running all night with their generator at construction sites," said Stafford Deputy Lt. Dave Moyer. "We're feeling those urban pains."

In Caroline, supervisors are revising the ordinance because of current and anticipated complaints. In addition to the new housing, the Virginia State Fair is likely to move here from Richmond. For now, the sounds of the county are munitions firing at the Fort A.P. Hill military training facility, highway traffic and the occasional booming speaker of a car cruising through downtown Bowling Green.

The area's law enforcement officials do not keep track of noise complaints, and they cannot say whether the numbers are rising. They say they prefer not to cite people for noise violations, which are misdemeanors, punishable either by a small fine or a short jail term, depending on the jurisdiction. They would rather resolve the matter by asking the alleged offender to keep it down.

But the issue is being raised more as tens of thousands of people move to what were once less-congested small towns, said Mark Flynn, who helps communities craft noise ordinances as director of legal services for the Virginia Municipal League.

With new residents come new ideas about what is "noisy" -- blurring enforcement for police and judges. And that's not just on a local level.

Flynn and Hans Schmid, who runs an international organization in Vancouver called the Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection, said the trend is to replace laws that limit noise based on subjective guidelines such as "unreasonably loud" with laws that call for a specific decibel level, because they are more defensible in court.

Fredericksburg last year scrapped a law that dictated certain decibel levels for certain zones and certain times of day, saying it was too hard to enforce. It was replaced with a broader code banning noise that "disturbs, injures or endangers" residents. Since then, 25 to 30 cases have gone to court, said Capt. Dean Martin of the Fredericksburg police.

The problem with noise complaints in a changing place, he says, is that people have different ideas about what's "disturbing."

"We have the folks who used to live downtown and weren't subjected to all this noise, versus people who aren't offended by it because they weren't here before," he said.

State law provides little guidance, Flynn said; the only limit it mentions is that communities cannot place noise restrictions on shooting ranges "more stringent to those in effect" when the range was initially approved.

To Lippa, the process is a balancing act: embracing the good things that come with the new, while "thinking about what you have" in terms of quality of life when you live in a quieter place.

Unless, of course, that place is Lippa's office, where he has one clock shaped like a basketball court constantly ticking as the ball bounces and a second clock that bongs like a church bell. He also has a dispatcher radio squawking in the background.

"Do you like that? I can make it louder," he says of the basketball clock. "What could be annoying to one person . . . "