Federal vs State vs Local Regulation
The Noise Control Act of 1972 (NCA) established by mandate a national policy "to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their public health and welfare". The NCA provides for a division of powers between the federal government and state/local governments. The primary federal responsibility is for noise source emission control. These powers have been used to substantially reduce noise from planes, motor vehicles and workplace noise.
The States and other political subdivisions have the responsibility to control the use of local noise sources and the levels of noise to be permitted in their local environs. States and local communities are explicitly prohibited from regulating transportation noise sources including aircraft and railroad operations and motor vehicle traffic involved in interstate transport.
The concept of making individual states and communities responsible for noise management is a fair one. It relies on three basic premises:
Managing community noise is a balancing act. One that often involves higher costs and greater restrictions for increased noise control. Therefore, a common belief is that the local communities should decide what the appropriate level of noise management (including regulation) should be within their community.
Noting these three premises, one can realize why transportation sources are exempt from local control. Transportation sources are often frequent enough to be considered continuous and their mobile nature results in distributing noise impacts across the nation. The federal control over transportation sources maintains a uniform control over the sources as they travel from state to state. Federal control also does not impede transportation between states and communities through changing noise control regulations that might restrict vehicle uses.
Unfortunately, transportation noise sources are typically a community’s most prevalent and predominant noise sources. These are the noise sources that typically define our “background” sound levels, the continuous sound that is prevalent in many areas. Fortunately, the use of electric motors in motor vehicle transport eliminates some of the most substantial noise source components, the internal combustion engine and exhaust system. The often high-noise levels associated with combustion exhaust will be gradually phased out and can be more rigorously regulated when other viable options exist. Our quest to reduce carbon emissions from combustion engines will have a positive effect on reducing our transportation noise sources.
Since community-based environmental noise regulations do not exist on the federal level; State and municipal regulations are the primary means for communities to manage noise. State regulation can offer the legal means and technical framework for their municipalities to regulate noise. This can provide consistency between communities since noise crosses municipal, and state, boundaries.
What is notable is that very few states have addressed noise issues with legislation or have established a framework that can provide effective community noise management. If state regulations for community noise management do not exist, the municipalities have the choice and responsibility to manage noise issues. When State regulations exist, they are often only applied to large projects that trigger other regulations.
Some states and communities have promulgated legislation that requires noise issues to be addressed during an environmental permitting process, particularly for large site developments. In these cases, environmental review typically occurs on the state or regional level and may incorporate land use planning and community zoning. When noise issues are identified during the permitting process, noise abatement can be incorporated in the environmental permits and later enforced through permit compliance conditions. However, through this process, existing facilities and projects that do not exceed the large site development thresholds do not receive any environmental review with respect to noise.
The States and their communities do have the opportunity and responsibility to control the stationary noise sources within their communities and those mobile sources that are not directly involved with interstate transport. Nevertheless, this level of control also involves the balancing act between higher costs and greater restrictions for increased noise management. There is a common claim that jobs are at stake if businesses have to pay more for noise control or are regulated away from restrictive locales.
The best way to manage community noise is through land-use planning and complaint management. However, even the best land-use planning will not eliminate the issues of work opportunities, business cost, implementation, individual rights and the many others involved in managing community noise. Noise complaint management requires the consideration of complaints by neighbors through assessing the reasonableness of the noise complaint and the availability of noise mitigation and noise management opportunities.