Conflicting Stories Coming from City Hall about Recent Noise Ordinance Amendment

New Bern Board of Aldermen -- April 26 2022
New Bern Board of Aldermen — April 26, 2022

The public was given the opportunity to speak prior to the Noise Ordinance Amendment on August 11, 2020. Fast forward to April 26, 2022, and citizens weren’t allowed to speak when the New Bern Board of Aldermen (BOA) amended the Noise Ordinance.

During the meeting, New Bern Police Chief Patrick Gallagher proposed that the BOA consider adopting an amendment to the noise ordinance. According to the agenda, the Police Department has received several calls to address loud noise from street performers who use amplified speakers to project music on public property. Although the current ordinance contains language that prohibits noise above a certain decibel level, the characteristics of a business and an open-air performer are different. Amplified noise within a business is muffled and does not generally create the same adverse impact. Additionally, the city does engage in permitted events throughout the year that are negatively impacted by competing street performers who use amplified speakers. The requested ordinance change does not impact a person’ s freedom to engage in busking activities if they do not utilize speakers to amplify their instruments.

Watch the entire presentation, discussion, and vote here:

Following the meeting, I noticed two young musicians singing in front of City Hall. I was within a couple of feet of them taking pictures and I couldn’t make out what they were singing because of the noise from passing cars and people talking. I found out later, they normally use a microphone to amplify their soft voices. I watched a video of Maegon and Izzy performing right after the BOA meeting. Here’s an excerpt from the statement, “These young musicians were shocked to sit in the Board of Aldermen meeting only to learn they can never use a microphone and speaker on the downtown streets of New Bern unless given permission by the government.” This may not be an accurate statement because there appears to be confusion from City Hall about the ordinance. 

Musicians playing in front of New Bern City Hall
Maegon and Izzy performing in front of New Bern City Hall

During the meeting, Mayor Dana Outlaw asked, “What is the process if you want to play music and you’re gonna get a permit?” (12:42 minute mark).

City Manager Foster Hughes responded, “You would need to go to parks and recreation to fill out an application.” He was referring to a Special Use Permit.

A few days prior to the meeting, Mayor Outlaw and I were on Craven Street and we heard a drummer with a trap set/drum set. He was not using an amplifier, but the sound resounded throughout the surrounding area (Middle, Craven, Pollock Streets and beyond).

On May 2, I happened to see the Mayor and Alderman Jeffrey Odham and asked them when a public hearing was required. They said, on items like land use, economic development and other things. They told me that the Noise Ordinance wasn’t one of them.

I also asked for clarification about the Special Use Permit. The mayor said the musicians would have to get a permit from New Bern Parks and Recreation (NBP&R) and then suggested that I double check with (NBP&R). Why would I have to double check with anyone since they just passed the ordinance. If they didn’t know the facts for sure, why would they vote?

Mr. Odham said it only takes two Aldermen to open the discussion to citizens. If that was the case and the musicians showed up at the meeting and wanted to be heard, why didn’t they open the meeting for public comment?

I emailed the Interim Director of NBP&R, Kari Greene-Warren on May 2, “I saw Mayor Outlaw and Alderman Odham today and I asked about the updated noise ordinance. They told me that a street performer could request a special permit to use a microphone (i.e., to help a singer with a soft voice). They also recommended that I clarify with you. I’m following up because I’m writing a short article about the updated ordinance and wanted to make sure I had the facts.”

The Public Information Officer (PIO), Colleen Roberts, responded to my email, “The permit Mayor Outlaw & Alderman Odham were talking about pertains to special events. The process begins with an event application which can be found in the Parks & Rec section of our website under “Forms”: www.newbernnc.gov/departments/forms.php. Click on the dropdown menu entitled “Park/Shelter Reservations & Special Events.” Applications are due 60 days in advance of the intended event so that they can be properly vetted.”

“This application is used by residents, visitors, businesses and nonprofits when seeking permission to host a concert, special event, public assembly, wedding, etc. on city property. This form can be used by applicants when amplified noise is intended as part of their event.”

Background: City Clerk’s minutes

– July 28, 2020 meeting: “The existing noise ordinance has been updated and modernized to include the use of sound meters for amplified sound and music. These changes will be applicable citywide. Alderman Bengel said she preferred to have some discussion about the item and then table the vote until the next meeting to allow citizens an opportunity to speak under Request and Petition of Citizens…Alderman Bengel made a motion to table the item for a vote until the August 11 meeting when the public can make comments under Request and Petition of Citizens – not under the item, seconded by Alderman Odham.”

– August 11, 2020, “Considered Adopting an Amendment to Article III of Chapter 26 of the Code of Ordinances Relative to Noise. This matter was tabled from the July 28, 2020 meeting, after a desire was expressed to allow public comment under Request and Petition of Citizens at this meeting. The existing noise ordinance has been updated and modernized to include the use of sound meters for amplified sound and music. These changes would be applicable citywide. Alderman Bengel made a motion to adopt an amendment to Article III of Chapter 26 of the Code of Ordinances relative to noise, seconded by Alderman Aster. Upon a roll-call vote, the motion carried 6-1 with Alderwoman Harris voting against it.”

Food for Thought:

– Why did the BOA want public input about the same ordinance in 2020, but not in 2022?

– Why was this item on the agenda instead of waiting for the new Board to be installed? The City of New Bern election is on May 17, 2022?

– The ordinance doesn’t address the difference in sounds levels between performers (i.e., the drummer without amplification doesn’t compare to voices of young female voices with an acoustic guitar and a ukulele).

– What’s the bottom line? The Mayor, Aldermen, and City Manager say performers can get a Special Use Permit, but the PIO’s statement states, “…This form can be used by applicants when amplified noise is intended as part of their event.”

– The BOA can’t please everyone, but they should be willing to listen to citizens who take the time to attend a meeting at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Your thoughts? Send an email.

By Wendy Card, Editor