Pennsylvania Noise Ordinance Article Published
The November-December 2020 issue of The Pennsylvania Lawyer contains an article on noise ordinances in Pennsylvania—Turning Up Quiet With Noise Ordinances.
The article provides context for attorneys when drafting noise ordinances for Pennsylvania. Many noise ordinances and purported noise ordinances (actually problematic omnibus “zoning” ordinances or nuisance ordinances) suffer from outdated research, lack of recognition that noise is a serious health issue, reliance on ordinances copied from other jurisdictions with other regulatory schemes, or failures to accommodate current law. After Scott Township, municipalities with defective noise ordinances may expect challenges and novel litigation.
The article discusses:
- the extensive medical research demonstrating noise as a serious community health issue linked to a myriad of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, learning impairment, birth defects, psychological disorders, PTSD, stress, and early death;
- a reminder that Congress (since 1972) formally recognizes noise as an environmental pollutant;
- noise is a fundamental property rights issue implicating the centuries-old fundamental right to quiet enjoyment and corresponding constitutional duty to use real property in a way that does not impair real property of another;
- Pennsylvania’s recognition (along with other states) of the “plainly audible” standard to trigger potential liability for impairment under quiet enjoyment;
- that so-called “decibel measurements” by definition do not measure noise, cause problems with enforcement, and do not provide additional “accuracy;” and
- common ordinance problems such as mistaken reliance on nuisance law alone to address community noise (nuisance represents a distinct, adjunct area of law) or “omnibus” zoning-noise-nuisance ordinances that try to lump zoning, nuisance, and noise together under zoning (the MPC) rather than as distinct ordinances with enforcement as general health-safety, and welfare, then nuisance, and possibly zoning (as true performance standards).
The article represents a starting point for attorneys drafting noise ordinances or for attorneys reviewing and resolving problematic ordinances.
Pennsylvania Noise Ordinance Resources
- Shannon Brown, Turning Up Quiet with Noise Ordinances: Tools for Municipalities to Mitigate Noise Pollution, THE PENNSYLVANIA LAWYER, 32-40 (Nov-Dec 2020).
- Shannon Brown, Noise Ordinances: Supporting Health and Neighborliness in Pennsylvania, Online Course for Penn State Extension (Sept. 2018). See also the announcement at https://www.shannonbrownlaw.com/archives/3161.
- Pennsylvania Sample Model Noise Ordinance Noise ordinance sample applying Pennsylvania-specific law, Word, fillable-field format.
Workplace Noise Again Linked to Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) researchers confirm that workplace noise can negatively effect health for workers. While traditionally, workplace noise focused on hearing loss, current research shows a litany of other, serious, adverse health effects such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The study concluded:
- 12% had hearing difficulty with 58% attributed to occupational noise,
- 24% had hypertension with 14% attributed to occupational noise, and
- 28% had elevated cholesterol with 9% attributed to occupational noise exposure.
Notably, the researchers stated that “nine percent of high cholesterol and 14 percent of high blood pressure cases among workers could be linked to loud noise on the job.”
The long-term effects or workplace noise remain unknown as does the effects of noise pollution in our communities. But with 22 million workers exposed to noise pollution every year, the long-term costs of noise pollution astound. Likewise, current research shows links between noise pollution and serious medical issues beyond hearing loss.
Program on Pennsylvania Noise Ordinances & Noise Law
On September 19, 2018, Attorney Shannon Brown presented on noise ordinances in Pennsylvania. Current scientific and medical research links noise to significant adverse health effects such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, annoyance, stress, and learning impairment in children. As research shows, noise need not be “loud” to be associated with adverse health effects.
Pennsylvania municipalities may use an easy-to-administer and sensible “plainly audible” standard to craft noise ordinances as opposed to the cumbersome, sound-level or “decibel-level” noise ordinances. A plainly audible standard allows almost anyone to determine whether a potential noise violation exists based on “can you hear the sound beyond the originating property lines.”
The presentation identified the controlling legal rights at issue such as the fundamental constitutional right to the quiet enjoyment of property and the related obligation of all persons to use their property in a way that does not interfere with the rights of others. The presentation also stressed that municipalities should enact three types of noise control ordinances to avoid potential liability for the municipality itself under 5th Amendment Takings for example. Each municipality should have:
- a noise ordinance to address immediate noise issues such as loud parties, animals, and other disruptive acts;
- a public nuisance ordinance to address threats to public health and the community arising from noise and other nuisances such as dilapidated buildings; and
- zoning ordinances to provide adequate buffers, setbacks, and zoning districts to separate potentially noise-conflicting uses.
Unfortunately, many municipalities still have no noise control ordinances, despite the threat to health and community quality-of-life, or only have a public nuisance ordinance—which is largely ineffective to address most noise problems in a community whereas a noise ordinance can. Others mis-classify public nuisance or zoning ordinances as noise ordinances.
Properly drafted noise ordinances encourage neighbor cooperation, minimize noise encroachments on private property, protect health, enhance quality-of-life, and maintain community peace.
Sample Model Pennsylvania Noise Ordinance
Pennsylvania Noise Ordinance PowerPoint Slides
Attorney Brown Scheduled for Penn State Extension Program on Noise Ordinances
Penn State Extension scheduled Attorney Shannon Brown to speak at a statewide webinar on Pennsylvania noise ordinances on September 19, 2018. Attorney Brown focuses on community development, community engagement, and community place-making law including land use, noise pollution, and noise control.
Neighborhood noise increasingly challenges communities and municipalities. Simple application of neighborliness can resolve many noise disputes.
Yet, increasingly, some community members reject neighborliness and [wrongly] insist on some “right” to make noise to justify their disruptive activities, noise, and anti-community behavior. These problem-makers can quickly undermine otherwise good neighborhoods, escalate conflict, and negatively affect health of neighbors.
Municipalities have an active obligation to hold problem-noisemakers accountable. As Pittsburgh Council President insightfully summarized, “If you’re not being a good neighbor, there are steps we can take to ensure the peace.” With increased populations, mixed-use planning, and higher housing densities, municipalities must protect the private-property right of quiet enjoyment; protect health and welfare; keep-the-peace; and perhaps avoid liability for the municipality itself for failing to take action.
Noise and its impacts on communities will be the topic of a web-based land-use seminar presented Sept. 19 by Penn State Extension.
Presenting the 75-minute webinar starting at noon will be attorney Shannon Brown.
Noise can cause serious health issues and can undermine the quality of life in Pennsylvania communities, she pointed out.
“Current scientific research shows that noise can cause significant, adverse health effects such as heart disease, diabetes, learning impairment in children, high blood pressure, sleep deprivation, hearing loss, psychological disturbances and stress,” Brown said.
However, communities possess health, safety and welfare powers to effectively address noise issues and protect their residents.
“Municipalities clearly have authority to control noise pollution, and enforcement may be simpler than is sometimes assumed when the right tools are applied,” Brown said. “Furthermore, municipalities might risk liability themselves for not effectively controlling noise and protecting fundamental, private property rights such as quiet enjoyment.”
Brown will discuss three examples of noise ordinances during the webinar, along with the formidable problems of trying to address noise through typically outdated, general, nuisance ordinances.
The presentation will cover medical effects of noise; working definitions of noise; constitutional issues arising from noise; statutory authority for controlling noise pollution; and the basics of sound and decibel measurements (which might not be needed). In addition, Brown will cover how to distinguish between noise ordinances, nuisance ordinances and zoning; and three available regulatory standards for addressing noise in a noise ordinance — plainly audible, decibel/sound-level, or a hybrid of plainly audible and sound level.
Noise Again Linked to Early Death, Heart Disease, Hypertension, and Diabetes
A Swiss National Science Foundation short and long-term study of aircraft, rail and road traffic noise demonstrate disturbing links to early death, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
The risk of dying from a heart event increases a disturbing 4% with every 10dB increase in road noise. Martin Röösli, principal investigator of SiRENE and professor of environmental epidemiology at both Swiss Tropical & Public Health and the University of Basel, stated “[t]he threshold for negative health impact is lower than previously suspected.”
The SiRENE study, ongoing since 2014, also suggests that noise may contribute to diabetes. Noise causes stress leading to insulin imbalances and causes sleep disruption.
The SiRENE study provides additional confirmation that noise contributes to significant, adverse health effects at much lower noise levels than previously suspected. Using the study information, noise from motorcycles, boom cars, and vehicles with tampered exhaust systems may increase heart-related deaths by 16% or more in communities. With aging populations in the US, the unnecessary noise places vulnerable elderly populations at significant risk.
Story from EEN (June 17, 2017).