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Barrister Bits by Debra A. Newby - Sonoma County Noise Ordinance - October 2018

Dear Debra:

Does Sonoma County have a Noise Ordinance? I recall that the County’s General Plan does have a “Noise Element” standard, which I believe, recommended that County Counsel prepare a Noise Ordinance. Has this happened yet?

Signed: Curious George

Dear Curious George,

It’s been a few years since I’ve monkeyed around with noise ordinances and the like, so perhaps now is a good time for a refresher. It is a complicated issue—we must balance the inevitable noises in our surroundings with the interests to enact a law to define (and more importantly, enforce) acceptable noise standards.

Let’s rewind a bit. Yes, you are correct that Sonoma County has enacted a 20-page “Noise Element” as part of its General Plan 2020. I reached out to the Office of Lynda Hopkins, my 5th District Supervisor, and as usual, her amazing staff was responsive, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. In essence, the “Noise Element” is a planning document that is managed by PRMD (Permit and Resource Management Department—now known as Permit Sonoma). On September 23, 2008, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adopted the Noise Element (Resolution No. 08-0808). On October 23, 2012, the Noise Element was amended (Resolution 12-0512). (Link to PERMIT SONOMA General Plan 2020 )

One of the goals of the Noise Element is to identify and attempt to measure “significant” sources of noise—think airplanes, railroads, traffic, special events and concerts, raceways like Sonoma Raceway, and power plants. I learned a bit about noise by simply reading this document. For example, the range of sounds in “normal” human experience is zero (0) to 140 decibels (dBA). To put things in perspective, a jet aircraft flying at 100 feet is 130 dBA. A busy street may register 80 dBA. An “average office” may register 40 dBA. The rustle of leaves may measure 10 dBA.

The County’s Noise Element then adopts certain “noise level performance standards” in the context of land use issues, with the goal of generally keeping noise levels at 65 dBA or less in the daytime (7 am to 10 pm) and 60 dBA or less in the nighttime (10 pm to 7 am).

George, you are also correct that the Noise Element, as part of the “Implementation Program”, recommended that the County Counsel prepare a draft Noise Ordinance for the Board of Sups to consider. That was eight years ago, and to date, such has not been drafted by the County Counsel, to my knowledge.

All is not lost, though, George. Sonoma County does have a narrowly drafted “Noise Ordinance” still on the books, dating back to 1992 (Ordinance 4585 and Ordinance 4606) which addresses “Disturbing the Peace”. This Ordinance provides that the Sheriff’s office need only give a first warning to the offender that the disturbance must cease. Subsequent visits by the Sherriff may invoke a “service fee” by the offender (which I suspect may be difficult to enforce and collect).

So…where does that leave us? If the noise interferes with your “right of quiet enjoyment”, it may qualify as a “nuisance”, which offers some legal remedies. The first task, in my view, is to knock on the offender’s door (in daylight, with a companion, if possible) and gently but firmly talk to your neighbor. Talk from a viewpoint of facts, not emotions. If the unacceptable levels of noise do not cease, then mail them a letter outlining the noise and how it impacts the enjoyment of your own premises. Try to tape-record the noise, to get a sense of the dBA levels.

Then, if all else fails, you might consider filing a claim in Small Claims Court for loss of quiet enjoyment. Damages are limited to $10,000 per person (you will have the burden to prove your damages). Not a perfect solution, but even with the adoption of a new Noise Ordinance, the enforcement of such may be a challenge. Peace.

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