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.