Commentary: New Sound Ordinance – This Sounds Fishy!


by Robert Canning

At next week’s city council meeting, council will be asked to change the city’s sound ordnance. With little discussion or notice, city staff have added an item to the agenda that could have big implications for city planning and residential neighborhoods in Davis.

In a nutshell, the amendment would, as one person has put it, allow someone to stand in front of your house and blow an air horn for a minute or two every hour without violating the sound ordinance. This would be allowed because city staff have decided it is better to measure sound by averaging it over an hour, rather than use a simple measure like the maximum allowed sound, how the current ordinance works. A quick check on the web shows that two other college towns – Chico and San Luis Obispo – have existing sound ordinances that use the “maximum” sound standard. Others have found that most cities use the maximum allowed sound rather than an average.

And this makes sense. Using maximum allowable sounds – particularly during quiet periods like nighttime – eliminates repetitive loud noises like, to use an extreme example, pile drivers and other such concussive noises as the Chico ordinance notes. San Luis Obispo has sound levels for daytime hours that are meant to limit loud noises such as leaf blowers and the like.

Staff note that “…it is typical for urbanized cities in California to utilize hourly average noise levels.” First, is Davis an “urban” environment, and 2) what other cities use average noise levels? Los Angeles and Sacramento use maximum noise levels in their noise ordinances. (To be fair, San Diego uses the average standard.) Although the Census Bureau lists us as “urban area” No. 48 in California, just below such urban wonderlands as Watsonville (No. 47), Madera (No. 46) and even Napa (No. 43), who in town thinks of Davis as an urban environment.

For twenty years Davis has lived with its current sound ordinance (as updated in 2005), which uses the “maximum” language. Staff justify the needed change – to just one section of the ordinance – by saying that they have “received inquiries related to noise and varying interpretations of the existing Noise Regulations.” Staff notes that the General Plan update anticipates a review and update of the whole sound ordinance, but for some reason they “feel” the need to change this section now.

In addition, staff state that no commission input is necessary. This is troubling. Commissions, particularly ones like the Planning Commission which has legal authority, are meant to hash out the pros and cons of neighborhood zoning and the general atmosphere of living in Davis. Shouldn’t changes to sound ordinances get a hearing in that commission? And not only do city staff want to bypass the commission process, they ask the council to “waive full reading” of the ordinance change and just approve what staff wants because they “feel” it is needed.

In my opinion this is not how good governance works. This needs more deliberation, particularly by the city’s commissions such as Planning or Parks and Rec. And to drop this amendment in an agenda on a Friday evening just after close of business and before a long holiday weekend invites the notion that maybe staff don’t want much discussion of this item. Just sayin’, you know?

Robert Canning is a retired clinical psychologist and lives in Old East Davis near the “much too noisy” railroad tracks. He is also treasurer of the Vanguard.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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18 thoughts on “Commentary: New Sound Ordinance – This Sounds Fishy!”

  1. Alan Miller

    Robert – thank you for keeping a hawk’s eye on the agenda and noticing this item.  The City certainly needs to explain what the intention and effect are of this ordinance are, and certainly more time and input should be allowed.

    This sounds like it would require a police officer to take an hour of their time with a sound measuring device while a source may pummel residents with a loud noise for the entire hour after the officer arrives, and then take the average?  That doesn’t even make sense in any practical way.

    This needs some flushing out.

  2. Tia Will

    All of us are prone to making mistakes. This includes those who are responsible for our city regulations and processes. The essence of accountability, which is certainly something we should expect from those who design and maintain our city, is the willingness to admit error and do their best to remedy the situation. What we are seeing here is an attempt to change a city ordinance in order not to have to deal with the consequences of having ignored the city’s own regulations in the first place. This is unacceptable without a full review by the appropriate commissions prior to submission to the city council.

    1. Ron Oertel

      What we are seeing here is an attempt to change a city ordinance in order not to have to deal with the consequences of having ignored the city’s own regulations in the first place.

      I find this both amusing and pointed, and likely applies to other situations as well.  🙂

  3. Janet Krovoza16

    I think this has everything to do with the fact the sound reports from Bollard Associates that Ash Feeney (lead author of the June 1 staff report) commissioned for the city in the summer of 2019 to assess the noise impacts of pickleball at Slide Hill and the zip track at Arroyo used the wrong standard — average rather than maximum.
    Unknown if this was a deliberate or an innocent error — Bollard actually cut and pasted a table from the Davis municipal code into their report and changed the heading of the limits column to “Average” from “Maximum.” City staff were apparently not aware of the switch until my husband and I brought it to their attention in an email on April 26. (Via public comment, we also alerted the city council on May 18 and the Recreation and Parks commission on May 19.)
    Now city staff — without any public discussion or council or commission input — is seeking to introduce regulations that would conveniently render these discrepancies irrelevant, while not incidentally significantly weakening the city’s noise standards and enabling it to declare both the pickleball courts and zip track in compliance.
    Using the incorrect standard of “average,” as Bollard and city staff did in their discussions and analysis, produced misleading results showing most noise at the pickleball courts and all noise near the zip track was handily below the city standards of 50 dBA between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. and 55 dBA between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Actually, Bollard’s tests show that pickleball neighbors experience noise in excess of 60 dBA and very close to 70 dBA, and zip track neighbors (of which I am one) to noise well above the nighttime limit and preciously close to the daytime limit. (The report measured 17 impulsive noises above 50 dBA at my back fence – easily heard throughout my house — during the 8-minute test period, and my readings weren’t even the highest in the neighborhood.)
    Bear in mind sound is logarithmic – so a 10 decibel difference is twice as loud to the human ear. And that ANSI standards recommend assigning a 12 dBA adjustment to “highly impulsive sounds” –the kind produced by hitting a pickleball or slamming into the end of a zip track — which would translate to noise greater than 80 dBA near the pickleball courts, and above 65 dBA at Arroyo Park.
    To introduce a radical, provocative and far-reaching change to standing city noise regulations (which were surely carefully crafted after months of research and discussion) at the nth hour without the opportunity for fulsome public discussion and debate, and on the flimsiest of pretenses, is truly a disturbing development, one that does not reflect well on our city government.

  4. Bill Marshall

    Background, context…

    Davis Municipal Code (Davis, California) (

    Noise Abatement Tips | City of Davis, CA

    On-going noise (= objectionable sound, just like a weed = a plant where it isn’t wanted) is best measured by hourly average (ongoing) for things like traffic noise, manufacturing processes, hours long party with amplified music, etc.  Often used to determine if mitigation, like a “soundwall” is justified… “Incident noise” such as air horns used once every few minutes at a protest/rally, barking dogs, is an enforcement problem… by the time the incident is reported, a dB meter is available and used, etc., problem has often gone away.

    Davis Noise (not ‘sound’) Ordinance is now generally enforced by PD… but, wait!  We want less PD responses to things!

    I strongly suspect the latter is why staff proposed the changes… and wanted it to fly under the radar… on the “process issue”… cry me a river!  Commissions were established by the CC, not by 22 tablets from Mt Shasta, not by the electorate… Commission members are chosen by CC, not by the electorate… Commissions are meant to advise the CC, and in a few areas delegated to ‘legislate’ subject to appeal to the CC

    Would have it been better if it was brought up with more public input?  Yes…

    Was it necessary to have 1-15 commissions, after long public testimony/input at each, study it first?  Hell NO!

    1. Alan Miller

      On-going noise (= objectionable sound, just like a weed = a plant where it isn’t wanted) is best measured by hourly average (ongoing) for things like traffic noise, manufacturing processes, hours long party with amplified music, etc.  Often used to determine if mitigation, like a “soundwall” is justified…k

      Hours long party mitigation is a soundwall?  Soundwalls often reflect sounds and increase sound in other places, hardly a solution to most thing, certainly not a party.  And your comment about commissions in dislogic.  Who is going to enforce sound ordinance if not police:  the mental health response team, a new Noise Force?  No one ever said we were disconnecting noise enforcement from police.

  5. Joe Krovoza

    To follow up on Janet’s post, linked below are the relevant documents illustrating how the Bollard Acoustical Consultants sound reports for pickleball (Slide Hill Park) and the zip track (Arroyo Park) were misrepresented — and then the incorrect use of Average Noise Level was relied upon by city staff in both instances.  Janet and I requested that the misleading report for Arroyo Park be recalled; the city has thus far ignored this request.  Now staff is seeking to change the noise ordinance citywide so that the code will match the consultants error and their continuing reliance on the error.

    Instead of putting everyone through this major noise ordinance revision, the city should own its mistakes.  What is needed is for the city to respect its own rules.  The staff report for the proposed ordinance revision says the current ordinance isn’t clear and suggests there are varying interpretations.  The ordinance is clear, the city just doesn’t want it to apply to them.

    Janet and I have tried to politely work with the city on this issue for over two years.  We have asked it to correct the errors of its consultant and its staff. The city’s response now is to propose changing the noise ordinance in a radical manner.

    Supporting noise ordinance and noise assessment documents, highlighted to demonstrate the misrepresentation that has taken place.

    I will also note that the situation related to Arroyo Park’s zip track began when the city didn’t follow its own guidelines — those related to notice for park impacts.  Instead of respecting their guidelines, the zip track was placed close to homes in an area where a variety of park-neighborhood issues had been worked out amicably for nearly 20 years.  Documenting of the disregard for noticing, and how the city did do proper noticing for the smaller zip track at Pioneer Park, is included at the link above. Alas, with proper public process all of this could have been avoided.


  6. Joe Krovoza

    Alas, with a proper public process all of this could have been avoided. When Janet spoke to the zip track’s vendor from the GameTime company, the rep remarked that she wished she had known noise was an issue in that area of Arroyo Park because then she would have suggested other amenities. When Janet first called the city about the noise (for a period we thought it was the noise from construction), they expressed complete surprise — and I trust this as sincere — that the zip track had a significant noise profile. The circular swings on the North Davis greenbelt just north of Covell Blvd. that were installed during the same batch purchase/install look very fun and exciting, with joyful children screaming and parents running and pushing — and they are quiet. Those would be nice in Arroyo! The zip track would fit nicely in the center of Community Park, far from homes and more accessible for all citizens of Davis.  None of this had to be.

  7. Joseph Wisgirda

    “This would be allowed because city staff have decided it is better to measure sound by averaging it over an hour, rather than use a simple measure like the maximum allowed sound, how the current ordinance works.”

    As someone who has been on the business end of noise violations, this sounds good to me. Way more reasonable.

    You people need to chill out. The sky ain’t falling. And they shouldn’t send cops in to do what can be accomplished by a community service liaison.

    These are Davis college kids. If it gets vewwy scawwy they can always call for backup.

    1. Alan Miller


      I’m cool with the community liaison part, just as I’m cool with mental health professionals responding; the problem is these programs aren’t in place now – there are no community liaisons.

      I know your gig and I’m totally chill when a neighbor comes by and leaves a note that they are having a band or JoeyJoey is DJ-ing their party and their will be party noise 10pm – 1:00am Friday night.  Courtesy goes a long way; I’ve had neighbors do that and never once complained when they have.

      On the other hand, before the murder a the Thai restaurant, the sub-woofers from Tres Hermanas would shake my house to the beat and get louder and louder as the night progressed until about 1:45am every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night even though the place was 1/4-mile away and you could barely hear the high notes outside (nor tweak the meters).  I could literally make out the bass lines to songs (on the rare occasions it wasn’t an endlessly pulsing dance beat).  I was kept up many nights and it disturbed my ability to get to sleep.  In that sense, the noise ordinance wasn’t strong enough as the ambient meters didn’t pick up bass sound waves traveling through the ground.

      Usually, party noise is between a short set of hours in the window during which some residents are going to sleep and others are going out to party – so generally 10pm to 2:00am.  I see no way that a call is made and someone sits there for an hour with a meter, be it Police or Liaison.   That wouldn’t work for a barking dog either.   Hour-long averages are more a theoretical measure for recurring noises, not for noise violation calls.  This proposal seems unworkable to me.

      The best way to avoid noise violations, have the host leaflet everyone within a block of the event.  I’ll bet complaints plummet.

  8. Joe Krovoza

    Not to be lost in all of this, the current noise ordinance at 24.01.020 Definitions specifies who will be governed by Chapter 24 of the Davis Municipal Code: “…Person means a person, firm, association, co-partnership, joint venture, corporation, or entity, public or private in nature, including any city, county, district or other public agency.” 
    The new definition removes: “, including any city, county, district or other public agency.”

    The city shouldn’t exempt itself from the rules they set for others.  The staff report does state:
    Maintenance of public property adjacent to residential areas may exceed noise thresholds and this type of activity should not be included in this definition.” [emphasis added]  And yet the deletion removes the city and likely all government agencies under all circumstances.  This is overly broad, setting a double standard.  If gas-powered leaf blowers were banned all the time or for certain times of day, would city leaf blowers still be okay?  Private tree trimmers not okay, but public trimmers fine?  Is anyone complaining about city maintenance noise?  I, for one, love hearing it as I know something’s getting done and it won’t take long.  Such a major, and blanket exemption should be handled with greater clarity, the rationale explained, and all of this should be reviewed and openly discussed.

  9. Keith Olsen

    How do we know that Davis will fairly institute any new sound ordinance?  I mean, have they done all the studies to ensure that people of color are not unfairly going to be picked on.  Are POC already more prone to be cited for being too noisy?  If we’ve learned anything these things need to be clearly thought out so white privilege and systematic racism are not factors.

    1. Alan Miller

      Ironically, KO, is if your name were not attached to this, it would be considered a real comment in these parts, exactly as written.  The Onion has met it’s enemy and it is us.

      1. Keith Olsen

        A Black woman in Michigan was issued a $385 ticket after her new neighbor called the police on her for loudly talking on a cellphone

        Obviously Davis will need to seat a new commission to look to study any noise ordinance before it can be considered racially equitable.  Maybe the Vanguard can do some articles on this, showing its readers the racial stats and inequities.


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