County supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday to update the Loudoun’s noise rules, giving the sheriff’s office something it can enforce for the first time since 2013.
The previous codified noise ordinance, adopted in 1982, relied on a reasonableness standard that the Virginia Supreme Court struck down in 2009 as unconstitutionally vague. The sheriff’s office stopped enforcing the county’s rule in 2013.
The 1982 codified ordinance stated that “no person shall make, continue, or cause to be made or continued, any excessive, unnecessary or unusually loud or otherwise unreasonable noise, which annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of other persons in the County.”
The new ordinance states that “no person shall permit, operate, or cause any source of sound or sound generation to create a sound that is audible and discernible in any other person’s residential dwelling with the doors and windows to that other person’s residential dwelling closed.”
Although the county now has a codified noise law, work continues on zoning regulations governing noise. The zoning rules will regulate continuous noise from commercial uses, carries civil penalties, and is enforced by the county staff. The codified noise ordinance, which the county board passed Wednesday, has criminal penalties, is enforced by the sheriff’s office, and regulates incidental noises.
As Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) put it:
“It is not permanent noise. It is that neighbor who decides to have a big high school graduation party for their teenage son or daughter, and they bring in a band, and their band is out on the back deck and it’s 11:30 at night, and you call the cops and the cops come.”
The proposed zoning amendment would prohibit outdoor music after certain hours—which vary depending on local zoning—and establishes maximum noise levels: 55 decibels in residential areas, 60 decibels in mixed-use developments, 65 decibels in commercial areas, and 70 decibels in industrial areas. It also specifies that noise is measured at the property line of the complainant, rather than at the property line of noise emitter, creating consistency across the county’s zoning noise ordinances.
Some supervisors and residents would like to see a lower acceptable noise level in the rural west. The proposed ordinance would prohibit noise above 55 decibels at the receiving line of a complaining property owner; some people suggested that should be lowered to 45 decibels in the west.
“I realize, Madame Chairman, such quiet may give you the willies, but we rustics treasure our quiet,” said Bluemont resident J. Marvin Watts.
“It’s turned into a zoo,” Hamilton resident Bryant Kling said. “This is a great opportunity to ensure that western Loudoun stays a nice, quiet place. This 55 decibel noise ordinance is a joke.”
Others pointed to the problems caused my noisy data centers—which would be grandfathered into the previous zoning noise ordinance, but which residents point to as a cautionary tale.
In particular, residents of Regency at Ashburn pointed out long-standing tensions with the nearby Digital Realty data center.
“Regulating a massive corporate entity like data centers is not anti-business and will not discourage data centers from coming to Loudoun County,” said Caitlyn Lindgren, chairwoman of the Regency Homeowners Association’s noise committee. “That would be like arguing that health regulations would discourage restaurants from coming to Loudoun County.”
Xgility CEO Chris Hornbecker said he would be embarrassed to be “an irresponsible corporate citizen,” as in the case of the Digital Realty data center.
“To our team, being a good neighbor means having a higher standard than just contributing tax dollars,” Hornbecker said. “While I love data centers, I don’t love that a data center across the street’s assuming that ‘business-friendly’ allows for willful violation of standards, nor common-sense ethics.”
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said his office is working on creative solutions for existing noise problems, including tax credits for noise abatement at existing commercial sites—something which would require authorization by the General Assembly.
The board initiated the zoning changes in December 2014; supervisors voted 7-1-1 Wednesday to send those proposed changes to a September board meeting for action, Meyer opposed and Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) absent.
The conversation sparked tension between two of the board’s committee chairs—finance committee chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) and Transportation and Land Use Committee chairwoman Volpe. The questions remaining around the zoning amendment prompted Letourneau to wonder if it should have been discussed more thoroughly in the land use committee, to which Volpe shot back, “Unlike the finance committee, we don’t do rocket docket over in TLUC.” She maintained that her committee had thoroughly vetted the amendment before recommending its approval.
The conversation around the zoning amendment also lent itself to a broader conversation about planning in Loudoun.
“I want to make just a broader point, which is there’s two things that exacerbate this problem overall,” Letourneau said, “and that is converting commercial properties to residential in certain places, and when we are dismissive of concerns about things like airplane noise and industrial noise in commercial areas.”
He cautioned the board to keep these concerns in mind when considering actions like planning around the Silver Line, around Dulles International Airport’s noise contours, and around “a particular old school property that we seem to suddenly want to do something else with,” an apparent reference to an application to convert Old Arcola School into residential units.
Board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) agreed.
“I have gotten emails from people asking me to move the airport,” Buona said. “Dulles airport. I’m not kidding.”
See related articles:
“Supervisors Tackle Unenforceable Noise Rule”
“Supervisors Advance Changes to Unenforceable Noise Rules“