Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Dangers of Regulating Things That Annoy Some People

UPDATE: The Arlington County Board has approved a conditional live music permit for Westover Market Beer Garden

During the more than two hours of discussion on Saturday by the Arlington County Board over a live music permit for the Westover Market Beer Garden, there was a brief moment of clarity. County Board Member Chris Zimmerman pointed out that the Arlington County code on noise control (PDF) doesn't just provide decibel limits. It also prohibits any noise that "Annoys or disturbs a normal person of reasonable sensitivities." Zimmerman shook his head and said, "How is county staff supposed to enforce THAT?"

The hearing displayed the constraints of using the law to limit things that are impossible to measure. Much like trying to determine the height at which neighbors will cease to be annoyed by windmills or the number of stories at which a building fits a neighborhood's character, trying to write a law that will prevent everyone from being annoyed by all forms of noise in an urban area is a quixotic effort.

But that's not stopping the Arlington County Board from trying! At Saturday's meeting, the Board neither accepted the county staff's recommendation to deny the live music permit nor accepted the compromise plan endorsed by all four local civic associations and supported by a vast majority of local residents. Instead, at today's meeting the Board will apparently continue twisting itself into knots in attempts to placate the literal handful of neighbors still opposed to the compromise.

Barbara Favola complained the board could not better regulate the noise from a crowd that was singing along or clapping to the music. Walter Tejada lamented the board could not legislate the effect of wind on noise. And a recurring theme was that board members wished they could regulate people talking loudly as they walked home - as if that wasn't simply a part of living in an urban area, but a nuisance that could be legislated away.

The craziness might've peaked when an anti-live music neighbor claimed he could hear the music in his living room with the windows closed over his television ... 1/5th of a mile away. Keep in mind 65 decibels (the level proposed in the compromise plan) is barely above conversation level.

One civic association president who testified in favor of the live music permit at the Beer Garden pointed out that if there was no live music in Westover, there would still be plenty of the same noise we all accept in choosing to live in an urban area - cars, trucks, planes. It would just be much less pleasant.

What there would be less of is the unique sense of culture and community that live music offers. "There's just no substitute for live music," a Westover-area violin teacher told the board. And a speaker at Saturday's hearing pointed out that children just don't respond with the same joy to taped music as they do to live music.

Look, I'm a firm believer in the ability of the law to protect consumers and safeguard our health. But when you try to use the law to regulate people's happiness, you're going to wind up creating rules that are impossible to enforce and leave no one happy.
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