In one last attempt to get heard before tonight’s (July 9, 2015 – 6:30 pm) Cary’s Town Council vote on the new Noise Ordinance, yesterday I sent the following email to Cary Council members.
Dear Council Member,
I understand from personal experience that when you are in a leadership role of a complex organization, you frequently have to make hard decisions with winners and losers, and the losers often get very upset. I believe you have — perhaps correctly — assessed that the Town leadership can withstand the political heat. Further, the noise issue is just like many other tough issues faced routinely by you and your fellow leaders.
Nevertheless, if we had ever been invited to any of the fact-finding meetings, we would have been able to show you why we think this issue is different and why Cary’s reputation (“brand”) could suffer permanent harm from the way the noise issue is playing out.
As an economic development economist that has given briefings at the White House and testified before Congress on regional economic development and innovation issues, I can tell you with some authority that a community’s brand is everything if an area is to continue to grow and prosper.
The manner in which the noise issue is playing out has serious potential to harm Cary’s brand. In fact, brand damage has already begun (see attached Google search example). Win or lose on the noise issue, if our brand is damaged in the process, everyone losses.
1) Cary is — perhaps inadvertently — significantly raising the nighttime noise limits for everywhere in Cary and opening the door for being formally identified as a noisy city having an unhealthy environment.
For all practical purposes the new Noise Ordinance effectively raises the nighttime allowable noise limit, everywhere in Cary from 60 dB to 63 dB. In the Town Council meeting discussion on May 5, 2015, members stated they were thinking that the 60 dB to 63 dB was a 5% increase. Thinking this was a 5% increase is not correct.
The decibel is not a linear scale. 63 dB is actually 23% higher in perceived loudness than 60 dB (see attached loudness calculator). Do you really want to be on record approving a 23% increase in allowable nighttime noise?
But it gets worse. Cary PD measures lawn maintenance noise at the property line of the complainant, not at the noise source (like they do with a noisy muffler on a vehicle). Further, averaging favors the most offending equipment such as backpack blowers, weed wackers, etc. because of how they are used in an idle-then-full speed manner, so only the peak allowable number really matters.
The combination of decibel averaging, the 23% higher limit, and measuring from farther away will very likely mean that backpack blowers, weed wackers and other highly noisy equipment will be legal to operate in Cary anytime day or night, any day of the week, anywhere in Cary.
Further, over 400 communities in the US have banned the use of backpack blowers. While we are not advocating that here in Cary, it demonstrates how the perception (i.e., brand) of a community can be adversely affected by being perceived as not protecting a peaceful environment.
Finally, ever wonder why most noise ordinances set the nighttime noise limit at 60 dB. It’s because there have been many scientific studies that show sustained environmental noise above the 55 dB to 60 dB range causes a significant increase in heart disease, stroke and mortality. There was just a report in the New York Times. By codifying 63 dB into the Cary ordinances for all to see leaves us vulnerable to be formally declared a city with an unhealthy environment.
2) Weinbrecht’s statement to the Cary News↑ “It’s disappointing that you have a few individuals stirring this up when nothing’s really changing” (the golf course statements are also using this tag line of a “few individuals”) will not stand up to scrutiny and will undermine Cary’s brand for having objective leadership.
The “few individuals” are:
- The 75+ families that have signed the attached petition asking for a delay in passing the current noise ordinance, which based on average family size, represents nearly 300 individuals. See attached Excel file of signatures. Here is the link to the petition. https://www.change.org/p/town-of-cary-delay-noise-ordinance-changes
- The 1,300+ homeowners represented by the formal board action by the Preston Community Association asking for a delay in passing the current noise ordinance, which based on average family size, represents nearly 5,200 individuals.
- The 25,000+ individuals represented by the Mayor of Morrisville who has asked for a delay in passing the current noise ordinance to allow Morrisville to be part of a coordinated change in both towns’ ordinances to end the embarrassing Catch-22 enforcement problems that result for the interdependent borders of Cary and Morrisville.
3) Weinbrecht’s statement to the Cary News↑ “We’re just codifying something that’s been practiced for years” fails to consider the well-known reality of a “perceived enforcement cushion.“
For a good example of the effect of perceived enforcement cushion, consider that during non-rush hours, the majority of drivers on I-40 go up to 84 mph because they believe they can get away with going up to 9 mph over the 65 mph speed limit before they will be facing an enforcement action by police. So why doesn’t government simply “codify” the I-40 speed limit to 85 mph? Because law enforcement knows many will start going 94 mph, again believing they have a 9 mph enforcement cushion.
Since the new soon to be passed noise ordinance is already in effect since May 7th when Cary PD started using it as their enforcement standard, the noise impact on my house has been significant.
For the past 10 years 2 to 3 times a week 1 or 2 mowers took 5 minutes beginning at 6:50 am to mow the 5th tee on the Highlands. It was 10 minutes earlier than allowed but we never complained. In the first week of June on multiple occasions (time-stamped video available), 4 to 5 mowers took almost 20 minutes beginning at 6:10 am. This was a huge increase in noise for us. We believe this is a case of perceived enforcement cushion. After the media got involved, they went back to showing up later, but it was disconcerting that they could make such a dramatic change and we could do nothing about it.
What has been “going on for years” is that some golf courses have been bending the rules but staying within a mutually acceptable perceived enforcement cushion and thereby maintained a good relationship with the impacted homeowners. They set up noise awareness “hot spots” and did their best to minimize impacts on sensitive homeowners and it worked well. (By the way, hot spots were often not about complainers, but were most often about unique features of their yard or home placement relative to the golf course and/or people recovering from serious health issues.)
After these changes in the noise ordinance there is absolutely no incentive beyond public relations for these large powerful private companies to have any concern about neighborhood noise. And while we might trust current owners and/or managers, golf has caught the interest of powerful private equity firms that are buying and consolidating golf courses nationwide. In this environment a change in ownership and/or management is a real possibility and may be at the root of why this issue has suddenly come up and is considered urgent by golf.
Finally, passing laws that rely on the good will of particular ownership and management of specific private entities to protect the peaceful enjoyment of citizens’ homes is generally not considered best practices in public policy.
4). Weinbrecht’s statements to the Cary News↑ that “The council doesn’t need more time to consider the issue” and “We’re closing in on nine months (of review),” will not stand up to scrutiny and will undermine Cary’s brand as an open and transparent government that encourages and listens to citizen input.
The recommended changes that are now part of the proposed new law were first released to the public on April 29, 2015, approved by the Town Council May 5th, and put in effect by Cary PD May 7th. There was no further input or fact finding between May 5, 2015 and July 9, 2015, only the development of the legal wording to implement the recommendations. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the whole public review process took slightly more than a week and there was no chance for a meaningful public response or reaction.
5) We may be making decisions based on bad, incomplete, or non-existent data.
Town Council meeting discussion on May 5, 2015, members stated they were inclined to support the changes because there have been very few complaints on this issue. The golf courses stated in Council testimony and in the Cary News that they have had “only one complaint in 4 years.”
First, it’s reasonable to think of the 75+ families that are on the record supporting the Petition in the last few weeks as complaints.
Also, as we started to connect with those supporting the Petition, we started learning that there have been many complaints. While we can’t explain the complete disconnect, we discovered that it is the policy of the Cary and Morrisville Police Departments to not issue incident reports on lawn maintenance noise complaints. They also only issue verbal warnings, not written warnings. Responding officers “call notes” do not go into the public record (they are only available by court order). The net effect is there is no public record, data, or statistics about the actual number of noise complaints related to lawn maintenance.
Also, our investigation revealed that the informal telephone survey conducted by Town Staff about golf course start time practices might have not been specific enough to get reliable data on the critical issue of common practice. Reports suggest they simply asked golf courses when do they start lawn maintenance. But the issue is not when did you simply start, but when, what, and where on the course did you start noisy activities that exceed 60 dB?
We have no objection to starting before 7 am. It’s starting the noisy 60 dB+ activities in noise sensitive areas before 7 am that is the issue. We believe the Staff information on this issue was incomplete and may be leading the leadership to a misunderstanding as to the details of what actually constitutes common practices in the area.
6) Nothing has been accomplished on coordinating with Morrisville or solving the Catch-22 issues in enforcement that leaves an adversely affected party zero enforcement recourse no matter how egregious the violation.
This work is simply left undone and is critical to the viability of an effective noise ordinance. A Catch-22 that leaves an adversely affected citizen without legal recourse is embarrassing to a governing body and any situation that makes an ordinance routinely unenforceable regardless of the severity of the violation will certainly undermine Cary’s brand as a well-run city.
Finally on a personal note, I never intended to get so involved in the noise issue, but as I did, I grew very concerned because the way this is playing out is reminiscent of a similar situation regarding tech startups that I have been involved in locally for a decade.
When I moved my startup software company here in 1997 from Florida, it was primarily because the Triangle was on two lists; 1) Top 10 Best Cities for Tech Startups and 2) Top 10 Best Cities to Live.
In fact, back then the Triangle was number 2 on the Tech Startups List, and was often referred to then as “Silicon Valley East.” That company I brought to town now provides nearly 500 local jobs at an average salary of $90K, making it a bigger payroll than all 3 Cary country clubs combined.
Would you be surprised to learn that the Triangle is no longer on the Top 10 List for Best Startup Cities? In fact, it is not even in the Top 20. Here is the link to the latest list in the New York Times.
This 10 Best Cities for Tech Startups issue played out in a very similar manner as this noise ordinance is now starting to play out. There was what started out as an honest disagreement among stakeholders on the right balance between investor returns and startup founder returns — much like the noise issue is really about balance of commercial interests and citizen concerns — but it became a winner-take-all conflict where now everyone has lost, not just the champions of startup founders like myself.
I am genuinely concerned that if we can’t take the time for all stakeholders to feel they had a fair place at the fact-finding and negotiating table, if this noise issue continues as a winner-take-all conflict, if the Cary brand is damaged by public scrutiny of a flawed governing process, and if there is not a re-establishment of a healthy balance of commercial interest and citizen concerns, Cary will soon also be off the Top 10 List of Best Cities to Live.
Not being on either Top 10 List will most likely, sooner or later, end our wonderful run of growth and prosperity. And frankly, I’m a lot more worried about that than an extra hour of sleep or my property values.
Thank you for your attention to this issue and your service to our community.