Editorial: Aspen city leaders ‘crawfish’ over changes to noise rules | AspenTimes.com

Editorial: Aspen city leaders ‘crawfish’ over changes to noise rules

A call to action: We strongly urge downtown bar and restaurant owners as well as local musicians to pack the Aspen City Council’s basement meeting room at 130 S. Galena St. on Monday evening to protest what appears to be a scaling back of plans to make the commercial core a more vital area.

A crawfish moves in a backward motion, and “crawfishing” is exactly what it looks like our elected leaders are doing with respect to long-overdue changes to the city’s noise ordinance. What appeared to be a progressive move to end the battle between well-to-do condominium owners and those who desire a thriving nighttime scene in the heart of a tourism-dependent mountain resort is starting to look, in hindsight, like a charade.

What a difference one month makes. In late April, council members expressed a desire to extend nighttime noise levels from 60 decibels to 65 decibels — an increase that doesn’t go far enough, in our opinion. The city’s current ordinance allows for 65 decibels before 9 p.m.; after that, the maximum level drops to 60 decibels.

“Crank it up,” Mayor Steve Skadron said at an April 22 meeting. “The vitality of our downtown is the priority here, not the new-to-date condominiums. They are subordinate in importance to the ability of our local businesses to make a profit.”

Now, on the advice of the city’s environmental health department — and likely because of pressure from the elite penthouse and apartment owners — most council members are saying that their direction a month ago was a tad overenthusiastic.

Environmental Health Director C.J. Oliver is recommending two additional hours for nighttime noise; on the surface, a compromise. The 65-decibel limit would be in place until 11 p.m., but after that, the limit would drop to 60 decibels until 7 a.m.

Oliver also is suggesting that enforcement personnel — at nighttime, that means Aspen police — take noise readings at the property line of the allegedly affected party. Currently, readings are taken at the source’s property line, which is blatantly unfair, given that a dinner conversation between four people in a restaurant can sometimes exceed 60 decibels.

That particular potential change to the ordinance also is out of step in terms of fairness. A closed-door reading, which would require police to take decibel measurements inside the person’s house when the doors and windows are shut, is the only solution here. How else can there be an accurate assessment of whether someone’s rest or tranquility is being affected?

To take the readings outside, on the property line, or inside, when doors and windows are cracked or open, would be a false measurement given that the penthouse owners are basically inviting noise into their houses.

We wonder if the environmental staff department has sought the advice of an independent sound expert. If so, has that expert been given a chance to speak directly to council members during work sessions? Or, is the city merely relying on what other Colorado towns and cities are doing? Isn’t Aspen supposed to be unique, a place on the cutting edge of progressive initiatives?

Sound is a tricky matter, as was made evident at a January jury trial in Aspen Municipal Court. In that matter, Aspen Brewing Co., which has a tasting room on East Hopkins Avenue’s restaurant row, was absolved of wrongdoing with regard to alleged violations of the noise ordinance. A sound engineer testified that decibel readings can be affected in myriad ways, and that what appears to be the source of noise is actually a conglomeration of surrounding sounds from all around the area. In such instances, who is to blame?

In other words, it’s too soon for city officials to adopt changes to the noise ordinance based on opinions from a city department which, though well-intentioned, is always going to err on the side of potential health risks to its citizenry. But there is no health risk in going to 65 decibels, or even 70. This is not Mayberry.

Though further study and input is required to assess the issue, council members should remain committed to encouraging downtown vitality instead of stifling it. Meanwhile, we hope downtown business owners, local musicians and lovers of local entertainment far and wide show up at City Hall en masse on Monday to make their points known.

And if the concerns aren’t heeded, we wish the council all the best as it embarks on its preferred diet — crawfish.

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