Bay St. Louis noise ordinance needs a little fine-tuning

The Depot District in Bay St. Louis, once source of complaints by residents over the loud noises and bright lights late at night.
The Depot District in Bay St. Louis, once source of complaints by residents over the loud noises and bright lights late at night. jcfitzhugh/sunherald.com File

We believe the Bay St. Louis City Council had the best interests of the city at heart when it passed its noise ordinance last week. But the ordinance it passed is not the ordinance it needs to balance the needs of bars and other businesses to make money with the needs of citizens who prefer peace and quiet over the nightlife.

For one thing, the ordinance is vague in some respects and that vagueness invites costly litigation.

For instance, it says:

“No person shall make or cause to be made in the city any loud and raucous noise ...” What is loud and raucous to one person could be music to the ears of another.

The ordinance attempts to clarify the vagueness of the opening section by assigning specific decibel levels to “loud and raucous” noises. Again, whether a 65-decibel sound (or 55 decibels after 10 p.m.) “offends the ordinary sensibilities of the inhabitants of the city” would depend on which inhabitant of the city you are talking to. We suspect many 20-somethings would be far less likely to be offended than the average octogenarian. A bar patron less offended than an early riser.

The ordinance attempts to get around that hurdle by listing several exceptions to the law.

Power tools, lawn mowers and agricultural equipment would be exempt between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Some people might find being awakened by the screech of a circular saw at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to be offensive.

Church bells and chimes are exempt as well. As are church and school functions on the grounds of churches and schools.

And some festivals and concerts. But only those sponsored, co-sponsored or permitted by the federal, state or local governments.

And that’s the problem. Why would the noise of a city-run festival fail to offend the sensibilities of people when similar noises from the Depot District would?

On the other hand, the ordinance specifically outlines the means to prosecute what we feel should be protected speech: “Speech or communication, or gathering with others to hear or observe such speech or communication, or gathering with others to picket or otherwise express in a nonviolent manner a position on social, economic, political or religious questions.”

We also find the penalties prescribed — up to $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail — too harsh.

And finally, the police would be required to mediate what is essentially a dispute among neighbors.

We suspect there are better uses of police officers’ time than metering the loudness of music emanating from a bar.

For these reasons, we believe the city must find a more equitable way to balance the competing interests of its businesses and residents. Bay St. Louis would not be the hopping beach town it is, receiving rave reviews in tourism magazines, without its entertainment scene. And visitors to that scene help fuel the city government. Without them, the city would have a lot less to offer its people.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.