City Weighs How to Enforce Noise, Light Ordinances

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell City Council is moving closer to adopting an ordinance limiting excessive noise at certain times of the day, while grappling with enforcement of an ordinance regulating outdoor lighting standards that roughly 80 businesses are still out of compliance with four years after it was enacted.

The proposed ordinance suffered a delay when it was introduced in August after a clause exempting the city airport from noise violations angered west side residents already opposed to any expansion of the runway there. The noise ordinance came before the council again Monday night with no mention of the airport; that aspect will be addressed specifically in a separate ordinance.

Yet during the work session, at which no votes are allowed, several council members still found certain parts of the revised ordinance objectionable, particularly sections restricting certain activities – like operating a lawn mower, weed trimmer or leaf blower – between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“A lot of people have their driveways clear or their sidewalks cleared before 7 a.m.,” Councilman Duane Larson said. “According to this ordinance, they would be subject to an infraction, a civil penalty.”

Larson and other council members noted the revving of engines, on cars, snowmobiles or other vehicles, would also be considered a civil infraction during those same hours.

“You don’t want to put people in a position where they’re setting themselves up for failure,” Larson added.

The proposed ordinance employs what is known as the “plainly audible,” legal standard, which means any sound which can be detected by a person using their unaided sense of hearing. In the ordinance’s section in motor vehicle noise, it would be a civil infraction to operate a motor vehicle if the sound from its muffler or exhaust is plainly audible from 200 feet. Another section would make it an infraction to play a car stereo anywhere in Kalispell between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. if the sound is plainly audible to any person outside the vehicle.

The ordinance comes primarily at the request of the Police Department, where officers say they need to means to enforce noise complaints. But some council members wondered whether the language could lead to city residents complaining about nearly anything.

“Whatever happened to a neighbor going to talk to their neighbor, interacting with their neighbor?” Councilman Jim Atkinson said. “If they’re having a problem with their neighbor, asking them to quit.”

“Whatever happened to people being nice to people and respecting one another?” Atkinson added. “I think that there’s a whole lot more need for understanding, conversation and less enforcement.”

Police Chief Roger Nasset said the vast majority of Kalispell citizens continue to resolve differences that way, and officers would not be issuing citations for people clearing their driveways of snow after a storm, but in the cases of persistent complaints, the noise ordinance would give the police a more effective enforcement tool.

“It allows our officers to use that discretion because we do have people that will take advantage,” Nasset said. “It gives us an opportunity, when they push those limits, to have those infractions available.”

City Manager Jane Howington said she would bring a revised noise ordinance, which altered the restricted hours for such loud noises to be between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., before the council in coming months when a draft ordinance on the airport is also ready for review.

As for the so-called “Dark Skies” ordinance, which provides outdoor lighting standards and seeks to limit light pollution by limiting how much light can be directed up toward the sky, council members decided they did not want to penalize struggling businesses currently by forcing any expensive lighting adjustments. Instead, Howington said she would introduce a phased approach at the next council meeting, where businesses can apply for one-year extensions toward making changes to their light fixtures due to economic hardship.

In January, the council granted a blanket one-year extension to all businesses to meet the Dark Skies ordinance standard, and the Planning Department has issued several letters to the businesses notifying them of the requirement. As of Nov. 2008, according to a staff memo, 80 businesses are still not in compliance. Out of that 80, 73 businesses need to retrofit their lighting fixtures. Out of those 73 businesses, 28 have done some work or have a plan in place to do so, while 45 have not contacted the city at all.

Council members broadly agreed the phased approach would continue to encourage businesses to adopt the Dark Skies standard, without penalizing those that can’t at an economically difficult time.