Quiet county

King County Council prepares to crack down on keggers, wood chippers, and backyard band practices.

What's this, a noise ordinance passed without shouting, hair-tearing, and deafening debate? How fun is that?

Well, it may not be fun but it seems to have worked. A year and a half after City Hall went haywire over a proposal to crack down on noise in Seattle, a more genteel discussion has taken place over at the King County Courthouse. The result: new rules for the non-city parts of King County that have apparently managed to satisfy everyone from JAMPAC to Joe the Ice Cream Man.

In 1999, club owners and First Amendment types hit the roof when Seattle City Council member Tina Podlodowski tried to toughen up restrictions on loud sounds, giving the cops seemingly unfettered and arbitrary authority to shut down offending music clubs. The council passed Podlodowski's measure, only to have it vetoed by Mayor Schell; the bill went away when Podlodowski left the council and hasn't been heard from since.

Of course, full-on raves are less of an issue in the more sparsely populated areas of unincorporated King County. "The problem," says Curt Horner of the Seattle-King County Health Department, "is somebody who sits out on their deck at 2am and plays the drums"—not to mention out-of-control keggers, random weapons firing, and people conducting their unlicensed wood-chipping operation in the middle of the night.

Complaints to county officials over these sorts of problems have escalated in recent years as growth has brought people in formerly rural areas butting against one another's subdivisions. Horner, an acoustical engineer who has worked on noise legislation for years, describes one call he got just last week. "This woman lives on Vashon," he says, "and right next to her is someone who calls herself an artist. Well, her art is welding together pieces of steel and then grinding them down. And that's not very pleasant. It's well above the measurable [noise] level that would be legal for that property."

At the moment, the county has no mechanism for going after such apparent offenders. Even when sheriff's deputies are called to the scene of a raucous party, they don't really have authority to cite anyone. Noise is the responsibility of the Health Department, which, according to a recent county staff report, "has not budgeted the resources necessary" to take action on complaints. "For the last several years," says the report, "the county's noise regulations have not been regularly enforced."

Under the proposed new law, which is expected to pass from the King County Council's Law and Justice Committee this week, noise violations are made a civil offense. And county cops will be free to hand out citations to anyone who repeatedly creates such "public disturbance noises" as holding band practice in the backyard or continually revving up their ATV.

Both the rock and rollers' lobby, JAMPAC, and the ACLU were consulted by county staff in drafting the legislation and have given it their OK. The ACLU, for example, prevailed upon the county to drop a line that would have outlawed "yelling, shouting, whistling, or singing on or near a public street." "That was put in by the police," says Horner. "It was a little bit of overkill." The county also dropped a provision that would have allowed cops to seize an offender's boom box, wood chipper, or other noisemaking property. Those three-wheeled ice cream trucks blaring "The Entertainer" and other tuneful hits also found favor: The legislation states that "vendors whose sole method of selling is from a moving vehicle" are exempt from the restrictions and are specifically declared not to be a "public nuisance." Hooray for Joe!


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