Commentary: City Pulls Noise Ordinance Issue, but Bypassing Commissions in Davis Is a Recipe for Trouble

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By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – It’s rarely a good idea in Davis to attempt to push through changes without going through the commission process.  For another example of that look at the proposed changes to the noise ordinance.

I don’t believe the intent was nefarious.  But it’s another move that looks bad—proposed for the first time in a staff report released late on Friday of Memorial Day weekend.  No city business on Monday.  On the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting.

This time it was caught and tabled for now so that commissions and citizens can weigh in.  That’s the right thing to do—but why do we have to seemingly go through this a few times each year?

We went through this with BrightNight as well and approved the contract without a full review.  That process was bad.  It eroded trust in the city between a segment of the population and city government.

In that case the city claimed urgency—in the case of the noise ordinance there is no such claim.  We have a robust commission system, active and engaged community members—might as well utilize them.

When?  I would be tempted to say whenever there is a major change that could draw concern.  But the reality is that, from time to time, the city becomes tone deaf on these issues and attempts to push stuff through.  Staff at times doesn’t seem to anticipate well what will be controversial and what is pro forma.  To check against that, there is an easy answer—always have other eyes look at these things. and generally that means a commission or a special subcommittee.

This time at least the city recognized that they needed more community buy-in, and, on Tuesday, City Manager Mike Webb asked the council to remove the proposal from consideration.

As he explained, “I think more work needs to be done on this item to provide greater context and to articulate the intent and purpose of the contemplated ordinance changes.”

In Robert Canning’s commentary last weekend, he addressed “the city’s sound ordinance. 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,” he wrote.

Council defends the ordinance in their staff report, arguing that the current ordinance “does not reflect a reasonable noise threshold for an urbanized area.” “In other words, the adopted decibel levels are too low and do not reflect the city’s current density and activity levels.”

That may be.  But it’s hard to know on the face of it.  Better to get broader evaluation.

Staff continued: “It is a usual practice by other urbanized cities in California to have an adopted hourly average noise level.”

But others disagree.

As Canning noted, “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.”

A sound expert whose comments were posted by David Johnson also noted, “Unless I’m mistaken, only San Diego uses l eq – 60 minutes. Although several use a sliding scale for averaged sound levels.”

One of the big problems with the proposal: “It could be costly and difficult to enforce a noise ordinance largely based on average noise levels over a 60 minute period.”

Process is part of the issue here.

Robert Canning called it troubling that there was “no commission input” as he writes, “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.”

This was just asking for trouble.

For example, former Mayor Joe Krovoza and his wife Janet live near park equipment that has been particularly noisy.

In a comment on the Vanguard, she expressed concern: “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.”

As the former mayor explained, “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.”

To me this is a key observation.  With communication between the city and residents, or in this case the city and commissions, some of these problems can be detected and avoided.  It sometimes takes a little longer, but it is easier than having to pull an item and go back to the drawing board.

Now the city can go back and do what they should have done in the first place—and we will see what comes of it.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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24 thoughts on “Commentary: City Pulls Noise Ordinance Issue, but Bypassing Commissions in Davis Is a Recipe for Trouble”

  1. Dianne C Tobias

    David, I think you are too generous in giving the staff the benefit of the doubt. This happens too frequently.

    Hard to believe there isn’t a gatekeeper in the CM office to assure appropriate items have been introduced/vetted by commission(s) before being placed on agenda and non-sensitive items given more time between agenda release and meeting. If not, suggest that improvement.

  2. Bill Marshall

    First, I agree that the proposed ordinance changes were not ready for prime time… I for one, would have wanted to provide input, based on knowledge and experience… as written, there are issues, to be sure…

    But I ask David, Alan, Dianne, and all, how many commissions should consider, have public input at?  And, which ones?  Fair question…

    I can think of only two (max)… I’ll share if you do… [I expect, ‘crickets’]

     

    1. Alan Miller

      Commissions input was never my thang on this issue . . . noticing, input, timeline, reason, intent, clearly explained effects, those were my issues . . . ask a commissionoid . . .

    2. Matt Williams

      Regular commenters here in the Vanguard know from past exposuer to Bill’s comments that he has an aversion to imposing the opinions of people who are not professionally-trained (whether from a commissioner or a member of the public) on people who are professionally-trained.  If I have understood him correctly, he wonders why the flights of fancy from the untrained and inexperienced should trump the well-considered opinions/recommendations of the trained and experienced folks on staff, who are being paid good money to do their jobs.

      That is not an unreasonable concern, but it is only one part of the story.  In their pursuit of professionalism, staff often is disconnected with the personal experience(s) and personal feeling(s) of members of the public (businesses, residents, etc.) whose lives have recurring interaction with whatever is being considered.  Having a process and a venue where the members of the public can have voice is crucial in my opinion.

      The question is, what is the best process and venue?  Council meetings? Having made more than my fair share of public comment at Council meetings, I can comfortably say that public comment there and then is “a day late, and a dollar short.”  There isn’t any way that the five members of Council can sit behind the dais and hear, fully-digest, and put into appropriate context what is said in public comment … especially if they have to make a decision that night on whatever is being considered.

      Direct meetings of the members of the public with staff?  There are two problems with that approach. First, staff does not have the available time.  Second, is the problem of fair access.  Many members of the Davis public are highly critical of the direct access that developers currently have to staff.  They don’t see a principle of equal time and/or equal access happening.

      That brings us to a third alternative … Commission meetings.  They are open to the public.  Access is equally available to all.  They are well noticed.  They now can be attended virtually, and viewed in video/audio splendor if missed in person.  And finally, commission meetings are documented with minutes.

      So, unlike Bill, I don’t see commission operating in an authority/professional-training capacity, but rather in a transparency, education and public access capacity.

      1. Bill Marshall

        You hit a nerve, Matt…

        In their pursuit of professionalism, staff often is disconnected with the personal experience(s) and personal feeling(s) of members of the public (businesses, residents, etc.) whose lives have recurring interaction with whatever is being considered.

        The “true professionalsnever have been disconnected… an unwarranted  canard to say all were/are… some of those in “professional classes” have exhibited that (some making it to Mgt.)… true story… and regrettable… so Matt’s use of the word “often” has a bit more than a kernel of truth… but there are/have been many others in Senior Mgt., throughout the organization that the highlighted term is very far from the truth…

        ‘Profiling’ not good… any context…

        Now had Matt said,

        “some staff is disconnected”

        I would have felt no need to riposte… words have meaning…

        1. Matt Williams

          Bill, as you often do, you looked at what is written from a polarized perspective … and memorialized that polarization when you inserted the word “all” in front of the word “staff.”   The words “some” and “often” are both qualifier words, and they effectively convey the same meaning.   Further, to use the wording “… some staff often is …” is redundant and cumbersome and presumes the plural meaning of the word “staff” rather than the singular/individual meaning of that word..

        2. Bill Marshall

          so Matt’s use of the word “often” has a bit more than a kernel of truth

          Previous post of mine… I did not read “all” into it… I read “often” … that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it…

      2. Alan Miller

        Regular commenters here in the Vanguard know from past exposuer to Bill’s comments that he has an aversion to imposing the opinions of people who are not professionally-trained (whether from a commissioner or a member of the public) on people who are professionally-trained.

        Regular commenters here in the Vanguard know from past exposuer to Al’s comments that he has an aversion to imposing the opinions of people who are  professionally-trained (whether from a commissioner or a member of the public) on people who are not professionally-trained.

    3. Richard_McCann

      Staff at times doesn’t seem to anticipate well what will be controversial and what is pro forma.

       

      This is the crux of the problem. The City staff can be tone deaf on too many issues, and it doesn’t take seriously enough the issues raised by citizens. Too often staff management has taken the attitude that they know better than citizens. City staff is not composed of all knowing experts, and the fact is in Davis the citizens who speak out are often more expert on a topic that staff.

      Regardless of level of expertise, staff should be taking seriously any comments and concerns by citizens. When responding to those comments and concerns, staff should be either making changes to accommodate them (since staff obviously works for citizens) or clearly explaining and documenting why the staff chose to demure on choosing a suggested path. Especially when a proposed change is made by a commission, the burden of proof to not take the suggested action should rest with the staff because commissioners are chosen to reflect both professional expertise and the composition of city stakeholders. Staff should never be able to override a commission recommendation without substantial evidence that goes beyond “we’ve always done it this way” (and unfortunately there have been several recent occurrences where staff acted contrary to the expertise of a commission.)

      1. Mark West

        “since staff obviously works for citizens”

        Actually, they do not. Staff work for the City Manager, who in turn works for the City Council majority, who, in the end, are the ones who work for the citizens.

        “Staff should never be able to override a commission recommendation”

        The commissions, with the exception of the Planning Commission under limited circumstances, are strictly advisory, period. Staff might well ignore or override a recommendation from any commission if that is the response desired by the City Manager (or Council). If you don’t like the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ answer, then demand that the Council replace the City Manager with someone other than an internal hire next time.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Actually, they do not. Staff work for the City Manager, who in turn works for the City Council majority, who, in the end, are the ones who work for the citizens.

          Technically correct, but misses an important point… Staff brings their own expertise, ethics, personal/professional judgement into the mix… they may be ‘public servants’ but are not “slaves” or (hopefully), not anyones’ minions… many have, and do, live in Davis, and bring their neighbors’/public welfare/best interest into that mix…

          But, I guess that nuance is not something Mark W, and many others, want to acknowledge… in their view, all City employees are overpaid/over compensated ‘lackeys’ (several here)… was surprised Mark W was part of that cohort… and, disappointed…

        2. Keith Olsen

          But, I guess that nuance is not something Mark W, and many others, want to acknowledge… in their view, all City employees are overpaid/over compensated ‘lackeys’ (several here)… was surprised Mark W was part of that cohort… and, disappointed…

          I read Mark West’s comment and I don’t see anywhere where he said or even implied what you wrote here.  You need to stop doing this!

        3. Mark West

          “But, I guess that nuance is not something Mark W, and many others, want to acknowledge”

          Bill:

          I am having a hard time understanding how you can take my factual statements and use them to justify your personal attack. I offered no statement whatsoever on the capabilities, expertise, ethics, judgement or compensation of the members of the City’s Staff.

          I am the one who is disappointed, Bill, in both you and your chosen behavior.

      2. Ron Oertel

        To think that this all started due to Matt’s use of the word “often”, and Bill’s objection to that.  Which truth be told, Bill had a point.

        Now, if he’s just stop calling me Shirley.

  3. Joe Krovoza

    For review: Planning Commission as noise has so much to do with zoning and the interfaces between residential, commercial, etc.; and possibly Rec & Park Commission since this is all about the city working to get out from under installing park equipment and converting courts that invite continual violations of its own ordinance.

    Sure to commission review, but let’s not forget we have outstanding volunteer talent in this community willing to support good decision-making.  I bet we have 5-10 Bob Lawson’s who could help us craft a fine noise ordinance — if we even do need a new one.  See this thoughtful input: https://www.davisvanguard.org/2021/06/sound-professional-weighs-in-on-proposed-noise-ordinance/

    Discussion of the lack of process for citing the Arroyo Park zip track in the first place is under “II. Process” at: https://sites.google.com/view/pickleball-zip-track-noise-rep/home

    1. Bill Marshall

      Fair enough, Mr Krovosa…

      My one (two) are Planning Commission and (optional) PAC… I don’t disagree with yours, per se, but glad to see you limit it to two…

      Alan…

      noticing, input, timeline, reason, intent, clearly explained effects, those were my issues

      Fully agree… except your use of the term ‘were’… they still ‘are’ issues, to me

      Dianne…

      More interested in process here which needs improvement IMO.

      Understood, but can’t agree, as you do not offer “improvement” suggestions… feels like “I’m thinking of a number between 1 & 100… guess what it is…”

      1. Dianne C Tobias

        Sorry Bill you must have missed my process improvement suggestions. They were to:

        -have a gatekeeper in the CM office to  vet non time sensitive agenda items NOT to be released too close to meeting

        -gatekeeper to assess whether and which commissions would be appropriate for referral.

        Clearer?

        1. Ron Oertel

          I think you’re two tense

          That is often the case, as are the clever comments from you.

          The “true professionals” never have been disconnected…

          Never say never.  Say often, sometimes, or rarely instead.  But also never say always.  🙂 Unless you’re sure.

          And even if you’re surely you can’t be serious, don’t call me Shirley. (“Airplane”.)

        2. Bill Marshall

          Yes, Alan… Pfizer has been so busy making vaccines, their “chill pill” product is in short supply… not getting my daily doses… like your alliteration, tho’…

  4. Ron Oertel

    So if I’m understanding this correctly, the reason that this issue is arising at the moment is (entirely?) due to the city’s response to the noise complaint in regard to the zip line at Arroyo park, which is acknowledged to exceed city noise regulations. And instead of resolving the problem, staff is proposing to change the regulations.

    If so, I don’t think you need commissions to weigh-in on what’s happening, here.  The city needs to either “quiet” the zip line, or move it.  And if the vendor shares any responsibility in that, perhaps they could “participate” in the solution.

    But, you don’t need commission input regarding that.

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