Noise ordinance puts bands in jam

New complaint-enforcement policy has brought police to several practice sessions

These days, the rock group Psilenus takes extra care to mute noise coming from the North Lawrence home where members practice. The four-piece band barricades itself behind a series of closed doors in a concrete basement, where a menagerie of quilts coat the walls to further deaden the sound.

The goal: to avoid another visit from the Lawrence Police Department.

In February, for the first time since the band began practicing at the house in August 2004, an officer approached the musicians with a noise complaint.

“For somebody to call the cops on us, I was just blown away,” said Dan Balsinger, Psilenus’ drummer and a manager at Mass Street Music, 1347 Mass. “I’ve gone outside and listened, and you can just barely hear it from the street.”

And Balsinger and his bandmates are not alone.

Since Lawrence police installed a new enforcement policy for city noise violations in January, several local bands said police had contacted them during practices – a trend that has some musicians worried about being able to maintain a practice schedule in Lawrence.

John Hindes and his band, Dark Matter, received a ticket in January when one of Hindes’ neighbors at a downtown apartment called in a complaint. Hindes went to court and dealt with the incident, but when the police showed up at a subsequent practice, the threat of further punishment prompted the band to switch practice to Topeka, where some of the band members live.

“We’ve found a different, more inconvenient place to practice,” Hindes said.

Supersonic Music manager Brian Baggett and his band, Dojo, were contacted by the police in February during a practice in East Lawrence, and officers asked that a drum circle outside the store, 1023 Mass., disband in May.

These incident and others like them have some musicians wondering whether they’ll be able to maintain practice facilities in residential areas.

Matt Haaga, left, and Greg Lang, both members of the rock band Psilenus, rehearse a song at their North Lawrence practice area. The local group received a visit from police in February in response to a complaint about the volume of its music.

“We worked really hard to find a house that was suitable for practicing,” Balsinger said. “The spaces available to rent for practicing in town are either in really shady areas where it’s not safe to leave your stuff, or you have to share them with five or six other bands.”

A new policy

Under the new noise policy, police officers can issue tickets without having to take information from the person who called in the complaint. This allows officers to write tickets for noise violations without having to fill out the tedious paperwork that used to take up to 45 minutes to complete. It also means that it is up to the officer at the scene of the disturbance to decide whether the noise is too loud – a policy that Balsinger thinks is a bit arbitrary.

“Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had a lot of people coming in” to Mass Street Music saying they had been contacted by the police during band practices, Balsinger said. “At first I thought, maybe you guys just need to turn it down a bit, and then they (the police) showed up at our house.”

But city officials say the new policy has largely been a success. Developed as a way to address complaints from neighborhood organizations that the city’s noise policy was not being enforced stringently enough, the new guidelines were designed to allow the police department to deal with noise calls more efficiently than the previous system.

Calls not increasing

Only 48 noise citations were issued in 2004. Although the volume of noise complaints has not increased, 108 citations have been issued so far in 2005. The fine for a noise citation totals $102.

Though police don’t keep statistics on the type of noise that leads to violations, police spokesman Sgt. Dan Ward said the vast majority of the complaints and citations were for loud parties, not bands practicing. Any increase in the number of bands contacted by police since January would have to be the result of more residents calling in complaints, not the new policy, he said.

“It may be that there has been a lot of publicity for the policy, and that’s where some of the calls have come from,” Ward said. “But our call load hasn’t changed.”

In any case, the majority of Lawrence residents have been pleased with the new policy, city officials said.

“Every reaction I’ve had has been positive,” Ward said. “It’s a fair approach. First you get a warning, and then, if they have to come back, you get a ticket. Even the violators seem to think it’s pretty fair.”

David Corliss, assistant city manager for legal services, echoed those sentiments.

“We’ve heard more complaints (before the new policy) that the ordinance wasn’t being enforced than that it is being enforced too rigorously,” Corliss said.

But the success of the new policy in cracking down on loud house parties may be of little comfort to the bands impacted by the measure.

“I feel like the cops are doing it to bust down on parties – you know, 50 people in a guy’s front yard screaming – and now it’s kind of reflecting on the art community,” Balsinger said.

Decibel levels, private solutions

Balsinger also said that having the officer serve as the witness to the complaint prevents noise-making residents from knowing which neighbors they have disturbed, which often prevents the two parties from resolving the issue on their own.

“Just fining someone rather than trying to get the two arguing parties to get together and work out their problems – that’s not really a solution,” Balsinger said. “That’s not fixing anything.”

Some musicians also think the lack of decibel guidelines in the current statute makes it difficult to tell whether they are in compliance with the law. Corliss said adding decibel guidelines to the ordinance would have to be taken up by the city commission.

“Some communities use them because it’s a less arbitrary system,” Corliss said. “We haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

For now, though, local bands may have to keep their amplifier volume dials turned to 10 instead of 11.

“There’s a balance of rights here,” Corliss said. “People have a right to play music, and the neighbors have a right not to be disturbed. We think the policy balances those rights.”