Day #009: End the noise ordinance

How much do you value silence?

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Either strike the noise ordinance from the books, or adopt a system influenced by the Coase Theorem to reach a more efficient solution.
  • Difficulty: 2 — Transaction costs are a concern but progress toward a more efficient solution is as simple as admitting we’ve set up one of the least efficient solutions possible.

After months of altering their normal hours for live music, The Camel’s request for a special permit will finally be heard at July 14th’s city council meeting.

The Camel has been a cultural anchor of the Fan and Richmond’s music scene since 2008. For the last six months they’ve been forced to stop hosting music at 11:00 PM on weeknights and 1:00 AM on the weekends because of their zoning and a complaint by neighbor Dan Shorkey. The changes equate to thousands of dollars of business for Richmond’s musicians, employees, and an important businessman lost because of simple noise.

It’s time to rid the city of the noise ordinance and certain restrictions on zoning. If not for the simple reason that Richmond is a moderately dense city and noise is par for the course, then because it stymies business and limits the enjoyment of many oftentimes for the sake of a few. The ordinance is spelled out here.

A comparison: I love taking a 20-minute power nap in the afternoon, and my windows don’t have any blinds. I don’t demand that the city send out a trained officer with city-purchased light level meters, measure the foot-candles hitting my pillow, and decide whether to take action. Instead I put on my sleep visor and fall asleep in less than 30 seconds.

There are plenty of ways individuals can deal with noise before demanding the city send out a trained officer with one of fourteen city-purchased decibel meters. Earplugs, sound canceling headphones,1 and noise-canceling machines are all practical and probably rarely used. Instead of using their own resources, or communication and neighborliness, the noise ordinance allows people to use the city’s resources to attempt to solve this trivial problem.

Modifying the noise ordinance

I’m willing to accept that not everyone has the same relationship to noise as me, so let’s expand the debate. Let’s say silence between 12:00 AM and 7:00 AM is a public good that a majority of Richmonder’s–in an election with record turnout–demand.

Noise is an externality2–a cost or benefit borne by someone who did not choose to bear it.3 Fortunately, Ronald Coase has a well-respected solution: the Coase theorem. If trade in the externality (noise) is possible and transaction costs are sufficiently low, then bargaining can reach an efficient outcome. His idea is powerful because an efficient outcome can be reached regardless of who is assigned property rights over the silence.

If silence is the law, then “businesses” and “raging 21-year olds” can try to compensate the “sleepy heads” in exchange for the right to make noise. If the “sleepy heads” value silence more than the “ragers,” then efficient silence is reached. If the “sleepy heads” value silence less than the “ragers”, then efficient “Get Lucky” blaring on the boom box is reached. The exact same premise works with noise as the norm and the “sleepy heads” attempting to compensate the “businesses” and “ragers” for silence.

This makes the large assumption that transaction costs are adequately low. Transaction costs are any costs incurred while making an economic exchange 4. Low transaction costs probably wouldn’t always be the case–but there are times where this could work extremely well.

Let’s estimate that the Camel has forfeited 50% of earnings during 17 hours per week for the last six months due to Dan Shorkey’s complaints. Shorkey is upset because the noise is adversely affecting his property values and quality of life–probably by an amount significantly less than the profits earned by The Camel during over 400 hours of sacrificed primetime business. The Camel could have simply cut Shorkey a check for breaking their arrangement with the city and efficiency would triumph.

This solution also benefits the waitstaff and the musicians. More importantly, Broad Street residents get back the externality of neighborhood safety from “eyes on the street”5 from smokers on the Camel’s patio.

This type of micromanaged negotiation isn’t always possible, but there is still a solution that gets us closer to efficiency than the “draw the line and litigate” that has plagued the Camel and Dan Shorkey.

What if the city sells permits to partiers and businesses that allow them to break the noise ordinance? The revenue could either go into tax rebates on noise abatement equipment or neighborhood beautification.

Some believe silence is a right worthy of calling the cops on their neighbors. I believe that noise is the product of far more important things happening in our city, and our obsession with it could be largely avoided with technology. The point is, opinions don’t really matter as long as we create a system based on the Coase theorem with low enough transaction costs that brings us as close to the most efficient solution as possible.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: photosbyChloeMuro

  1. Concerns about alarms can be avoided by setting an alarm in the headphones and on another device for the room. 
  2. Air pollution, antibiotic use (causing resistance), beekeeper’s bees pollinating flowers, and education benefiting society as a whole are also externalities. 
  3. This raises an interesting question: if someone chooses to move next to a club, sports venue, etc., is it really an externality? 
  4. Bargaining costs would probably be the largest transaction cost. Policing and enforcement and information would be other problems. 
  5. An idea pioneered by sociologist Jane Jacobs. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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