City Council approved an update to the noise ordinance March 2 that limits noise to 10 decibels above the city’s ambient noise level. The new law comes after protesters used a bullhorn during weekly Sunday protests, and a number of citizens complained to the council.

City Attorney Bill Kelly said there will be two ways to address people being overly noisy. If a person is disturbing neighbors, the current noise standards apply. The city can also take a static picture of noise in a certain location, then address any increased noise.

Too much noise from too many people can result in noise pollution, Kelly said. To address the issue the city needs to determine the ambient, or background, noise with a decibel reader, which the city has. The Police Department would use the device to determine if the ordinance is being violated. Many municipalities use such devices in their noise ordinances, he said.

The ordinance establishes a permit requirement for festivals that would violate the allowed increase in noise. Anyone can apply for a special event noise permit.

"Noise is a funny thing,” Kelly said. When he and another city employee were testing the device, it went up 20 decibels while they were talking.

Kelly said the Police Department would enforce the rule. The decibel reader will go to the department instead of staying at the Planning and Codes office. He suggested having police use body cameras as a way to help in prosecuting cases regarding noise. The police chief requested that his department be trained properly on using the decibel meter.

Kelly’s initial draft of the ordinance stated that a person cannot make noise more than 10 decibels above the ambient level for more than a 10-minute period per hour. Councilor Mike Hurley was concerned about the amount of time permitted per hour to be over the allowed noise level. “You can be pretty obnoxious for two minutes every 10 minutes,” he said.

Councilor Mary Mortier made a list of changes to the proposed ordinance. She requested that there be one week between warnings and citations instead of 30 days. She also requested the continuous noise allowed per hour be lowered to five minutes instead of 10. She asked that time periods on a number of ordinance sections start at 6 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., because construction projects typically start at 6 a.m. She requested that the special events definition should be lowered from 20 people to 10 people.

Councilor Paul Dean was concerned that some recreational pursuits and lobstering activity would be affected by the ordinance. He was against changing the time when the ordinance begins for the section regarding recreation and boating to 6 a.m. Councilor Neal Harkness said it is not legal to hunt at night and he doesn’t think anyone is going to complain about a lobster boat starting up in the morning.

Mortier suggested that the section be parsed into two fields, one for recreation and one for industry.

She asked that threatening or suggestive written gestures be added to the section of the noise ordinance regarding speech, to which Kelly said written speech cannot be regulated at the municipal level. “The United States Supreme Court has said 'Do not mess with signs,'" he said.

Hurley said he’s not that worried about some guy mowing his lawn or shooting a duck or starting a lobster boat. He wants to know that next month the council is empowered to do something about amplified music and loudspeakers in particular; everything else has not been a real problem.

“I just want to be assured or I want to convey the interest in assurance that we do have the tools to do what we want to do or need to do, and that this is going to be a document that once passed, that the Belfast Police Department is going to be comfortable with it and is going to be able to enforce it.”

The measure will come before the City Council at its March 16 meeting for a second reading. A version of the ordinance can be found on the city website.