EAST GREENWICH--The town council found its footing last Thursday regarding its proposed amendments to the sound ordinance, and voted to move the proposed changes forward to a third reading amid vocal confrontations with representatives of Blu on the Water. The amended ordinance, if passed, will lower the allowed decibel levels generated by waterfront properties, which have been almost constantly derided as a public nuisance by local residents. Town Council President Mark Schwager addressed the need for balance in promoting the wellbeing of residents while also protecting local business.
“The waterfront is a very important part of our town and it is a very popular part of our community,” Schwager said. “People want to live there. People want to work there. They use the waterfront for its boating facilities and they visit and enjoy the restaurants and the music scene.”
“Unfortunately,” Schwager continued, “these various pieces of the waterfront can come into conflict, and we see that with business related noise, traffic, parking, and crowd control that impact the residents in this area.”
Indeed, from the start of the sound ordinance saga early this year, residents have consistently petitioned the town council to take action which it has hitherto been reluctant to move on, likely due to fears of pushback from the relatively powerful business interests of the town. One of those businesses, Blu on the Water, has been accompanied by lawyers and press crews from state media on nearly every venture to the council’s presence. Blu’s sway gave way on Thursday, however, as the council limited public comment for or against the ordinance to people who either live or work within the town.
The council and the public heard a lengthy lecture by URI professor of ocean engineering, James Miller, who earned his doctorate at MIT and specializes in acoustics. Over the summer, Miller operated as the town’s sound consultant, carrying out a number of tests to measure noise in the waterfront district with the assistance of graduate students, and to make recommendations on how to best mitigate noise levels deemed to be unhealthy.
The most controversial part of the noise ordinance was the inclusion of two different measurements for sound, dBa and dBc. A-weighted decibels (dBa) are measures of relative loudness as related to human hearing and generally encompass higher-frequency sounds that are easy to hear. Throughout Thursday’s proceedings, Blu’s legal representation pushed for an ordinance that only included such a measure. C-weighted decibels (dBc), on the other hand, are measures of the power ratio of a sound signal, and more fully measure lower-tone, bass frequencies, which often can pass through walls and thus create a great deal of discomfort for those in the vicinity.
“The bass frequencies are particularly hard to shield, as they pass through many barriers,” Miller said.
Miller then explored the various noise levels recorded near businesses on the waterfront and found that music at venues such as Blu could regularly surpass 80 dBc, a fact that the business has to date been able to skirt around because the town’s current ordinance limits sound to between 65 and 75 dBa. The ordinance accepted by the council on Thursday, however, incorporates standards for measuring sound levels with both dBa and dBc.
Blu’s owners and legal representation struggled throughout the night to strike a consistent tone, fluctuating from assurances that they were civic-minded business owners to possibly threatening the council with retaliation at the polls if the ordinance passed.
“It’s an impossible ask,” said Blu’s attorney, Jeffrey Gladstone. “There hasn’t been anything that really suggests that [the ordinance] is attainable.”
“Except that our expert said it is,” council member Michael Donegan shot back.
Presented with the fact the 65 decibels was a near universal standard across the country, Blu insisted that those standards only ever applied to dBa, and that dBc measurements were untenable.
“Didn’t the owners of Blu fight this exact fight in Warwick,” Donegan pressed, “where for more than a year they went through hearings and hearings and in the end, Warwick set a 60/50 limit for dBa?”
“It is unenforced because it is ridiculous,” Gladstone replied.
“You asked me to hire an expert,” Donegan said. “I did.”
“This is a town that I have lived in,” Gladstone concluded. “And every two years we have a recycling. We have elections. And people should take these things looking to the long run.”
“Are you suggesting that when we run for re-election, somehow we should be worried about this?” Donegan asked to applause.
Gladstone struggled to backpeddle from the implications of the comment, but ultimately fell back to arguing that Blu was being unfairly treated compared to the rest of the town.
Such an argument did not bear out, however, as Donegan cited Blu’s widespread advertising that promised a “slice of South Beach” as part of its appeal.
In the end, the council approved an amended ordinance for third reading that will set the waterfront’s noise limits to 60 dBa and 65 dBc after a lengthy back and forth between committee members Renu Englehart and Michael Zarrella concerning the limiting of noise on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which are important business days within the service industry community. It is unclear when the third reading will be held, but it is unlikely that the community has heard the last of its residents’ concerns, or its businesses’ fears.