Managing Community Noise
A basic premise of all noise complaints is “reasonableness”. People are most accepting of noise that is reasonable. Here are several of many possible examples of how reasonableness affects our perceptions:
Children make noise when they are having fun and using recreational areas;
Reasonableness is one of the primary factors that people use when tolerating or complaining about noise; and reasonableness is subjective. It makes common sense to tolerate reasonable sounds and not tolerate unreasonable ones. Even reasonable sounds which are commonly tolerated are considered noise, but unreasonable sounds are universally considered to be unwanted and intolerable.
Many factors are involved in our individual determinations of reasonableness. These are the components that vary by person and perspective. They often include opposing perspectives. Two core opposing perspectives are:
The reasonable determination is fundamentally why noise management has be assigned for communities to decide. It becomes so personal that the agreement on a national scale or even on a state level has become unreasonable by itself. This is a fundamental premise in our country’s history of tackling community noise management and why the EPA agency on community noise was defunded and forced into oblivion.
Community based environmental noise management follows two general approaches:
Decibel-based noise criteria provide a definitive scale to enforce noise emissions.
Positive aspects of decibel based criteria include:
Negative aspects of decibel based criteria include:
Reasonableness cannot be defined by decibel criteria because reasonableness is subjective and decibel criteria are not;
Fixed criteria levels do not allow for flexible implementation which can be very important as issues change within a community;
Nuisance noise ordinances provide a flexible means to enforce noise complaints. Public nuisance noise ordinances are typically based on subjective standards which always come down to reasonableness. A common definition is a noise condition that is objectionable to one or more reasonable persons.
Positive aspects of nuisance based criteria include:
Negative aspects of nuisance based criteria include:
Audibility and Annoyance
It is important to note that the “threshold of audibility” is not necessarily a noise impact. Although being able to notice something by its faint sound may evoke annoyance, that annoyance is not due to excessive sound. It is reasonable to assume that faint sounds can evoke very strong negative feelings that even cause distress but that’s when the issue becomes more than acoustical. Exceptions could include unusual sounds, including tones, that may be inappropriate during hours when people are most noise sensitive, such as when sleeping.
At residential locations with low or moderate noise exposures, sound masking by other sounds does not exist and specific sounds can easily be noticed. The human ear is a very good hearing device and can distinguish and localize on sounds with 10 to 100 (10-20 dB) times less energy than the average ambient sound during quiet times. Noise, by definition, is considered unwanted sound, which is a subjective interpretation of a sound.
The “threshold of audibility” is when a person becomes aware of the sound. At this threshold, sometimes it is the cause of the sound which triggers annoyance versus the sound itself. The sound level is not high enough to create an adverse sound impact in a reasonable person but the association with the noise producing activity is the trigger for annoyance. A good analogy would be the noise generated by a mosquito; the sound level could hardly be considered a noise impact but the sound represents the presence of a potential parasite and therefore triggers a high level of annoyance. If audibility is considered a noise impact we should question if the activity should be present versus is the sound too loud.