May 8, 2014 at 4:03 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Nightlife noise nannies discover decibel democracy
noise, NIMBY, gay news, Washington Blade

All three gay bar venues inspected by the inter-agency ‘noise task force’ were found to be in compliance with city ordinances.

A nascent NIMBY noise crusade in the District has been at least momentarily silenced.

Along the way, a rarified ragtag collection of urban noise objectors has discovered a timeworn credo: Be careful what you wish for.

That is the lesson learned last week by a small group of D.C. anti-noise complainers who launched a campaign in January to stifle the sounds of city nightlife in the bustling downtown commercial zone along Connecticut Avenue south of Dupont Circle. An ad hoc group, comprised almost exclusively of a few inhabitants in a single residential building adjacent to the busy thoroughfare, had demanded that D.C. agencies conduct sound checks outside area bars and nightclubs and for outdoor patios and rooftop decks.

They hoped to prove that the nighttime establishments were violating the city’s ordinance restricting external noise to no more than 60 decibels – equivalent to the sound of a normal conversation between two people. Undeterred by the fact that ordinary streetscape sounds and passing auto traffic exceed the maximum level, with a Metrobus commonly registering in the mid-to-high-80s on a decibel meter, they pushed for a citywide crackdown.

That’s exactly what they got. Except now they don’t like the outcome.

In fact, the District government did more than simply check the sound levels in their area. As announced at a March 10 community forum featuring officials from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the agencies launched a citywide inspection program three days later. An inter-agency “noise task force” was deployed to check ambient noise levels on an unannounced and random basis, including at venues that had generated complaints by the group and others.

The result? An April 29 report covering a seven-week period of inspections indicated that 191 sound checks across the city yielded only five venues registering above the limit, resulting in two DCRA citations and seven ABRA infraction warnings. Significantly, of the mere handful of businesses reported as violating the impractically low legal standard, each was also recorded one or more times in full compliance with the law.

All three gay bar venues inspected were also found to be in compliance.

Only one venue among the many in the vicinity of the protesters’ residential building registered above the threshold. The business, long in operation and without prior complaint by any group members or other area residents, had already planned voluntary and significant sound mitigation solutions currently underway once the owners first became aware of the group’s concerns.

Incredulously, one of the two leaders of the D.C. Nightlife Noise Coalition publicly announced she was not affected by noise inside her housing unit from the downtown venues, but was simply a stickler for enforcement. “I’m doing this because I want the law to be complied with,” Sarah Peck told Washington City Paper.

Peck is apparently someone you’d want organizing your sock drawer.

Abigail Nichols, Peck’s comrade-in-combat and a longtime opponent of nightlife businesses, is also a Dupont advisory neighborhood commissioner strikingly out-of-step with her colleagues on this issue. In addition, Nichols has long protested liquor licenses, battled regulatory reforms and recently gained the support of the notoriously anti-business Dupont Circle Citizens Association for this latest campaign.

What is most troubling about the actions of this tiny group, however, is that they will likely continue filing liquor license protests in an effort to extract unpopular restrictions and limits on operating hours and activities for outdoor spaces. With fair and forthright good faith dealings decidedly not their trademark, they will seek to curtail sidewalk patio and rooftop deck hours on an across-the-board basis rather than engage in individual solution-oriented approaches to any legitimate and actual public problems.

They would curtail a wildly popular and widely appreciated amenity of urban living and hamper the city’s largest private sector business segment now generating over $400 million in sales tax revenues alone.

Even though all their noise has amounted to nothing.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

  • HERE! HEAR! LOL :)

  • Long story short: there may, in fact, be an issue with sound, but handheld SPL meters on the sidewalk won’t find it. That said, maybe people who don’t like nightlife shouldn’t live in the nightclub district, right?

    I’m no fuddy-duddy. You don’t mix rock bands and set up PAs for the same ‘cuz you plan on going to church the next morning. But you also learn a thing or two about acoustics along the way. I don’t know the details of the complaints, but I can guess what’s really behind this. It’s actually stupendously common.

    It’s the bass! Pro sound systems have improved massively over the past 20 years, as anyone who goes to a good club could tell you.

    Specifically, modern, top-level professional subwoofers from Funktion One, Avalon (EAW) and Fulcrum can reproduce the lowest octaves — from 20 – 80 Hz — with far greater power than ever before. (You know I’m not lyin’.) Modern technique is to “bunker” the subs in concrete and sand if possible to maximize the output. Altogether, this generates an ungodly amount of acoustical energy that get into the foundations of the building and then into whatever is beneath that.

    Unlike sound in the air that decays pretty quickly, sound travels through solids much more efficiently, so it decays over a longer distance. These super powerful, super long sound waves can easily travel a couple hundred feet into the foundations of surrounding buildings. Yes, they can be on the next block. Once they get into these other buildings, the energy travels all through the structure, yes, up many floors of a high rise. The rooms then act as resonators.

    The bad news is that there really isn’t a fix. A well-known club on Folsom St in SF has spent significant money trying to isolate their subs and with very little effect.

    So, yeah, the SPL meter on the sidewalk shows an average level in a moderate range. But lying in a bed in a quiet apartment, even 50dB of 40 Hz at 120 BPM is gonna annoy the crap out of you.

  • What’s the story with gay bars and loud music, I wonder if there is a higher is rate of deafness in the older gay community.

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