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After years of delay, the county finally inches toward a noise ordinance.

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For years, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has been circling around some especially thorny issues. There’s plenty of posturing and speechifying, but a failure to act on things like short-term rentals and a noise ordinance.

A noise ordinance was back before the board on May 10. “I move to kick the can down the road,” said Supervisor John Phillips at the end of a lengthy discussion, perhaps only half-jokingly.

Phillips represents North County, where for years, a growing number of residents have complained about loud, late-night parties with live, amplified music that reverberates through the canyons of their rural communities and makes it impossible to sleep. They’ve grown increasingly frustrated that despite an amended ordinance in 2019, it has gone utterly unenforced by sheriff’s deputies. They’ve turned to their own form of policing, using social media to notify each other if they see a large party being set up in the afternoon – tents, stages, speakers – so they can preemptively alert county officials. Still, those officials take no action.

Some residents criticize these actions as a form of vigilantism, but nobody in power is doing anything. Phillips is retiring, and all six candidates running for his seat say he’s failed to address this issue. They’re right. But finally, in his final months in office, the board is poised to pass a revised ordinance regulating noise in unincorporated Monterey County.

The revised ordinance is scheduled to be considered on Tuesday, May 24. It strives to thread the needle between protecting the residents who are suffering from noise, while protecting others who want to host parties – a Goldilocks-style attempt to allow both types of property enjoyment, peaceful and bumping.

The draft ordinance makes a few changes from existing rules. Decibel levels would remain the same – a maximum of 65 decibels is allowed overnight, and 85 decibels during the day. But enforcement shifts from the Sheriff’s Office issuing criminal citations to the Monterey County Department of Housing and Community Development with administrative citations; the board recently approved funds for two additional code compliance officers.

The other sticky issue is what qualifies as nighttime hours. Phillips was ready to define nighttime as between 8pm and 7am (an hour earlier than the current cutoff of 9pm). After a lot of discussion – that balancing of a right to party with a right to peace – they settled on keeping 9pm. (I agree that any earlier – especially in the summer – is unreasonably early.)

The proposed ordinance does not go nearly far enough for some of the people who are most aggrieved by noise.

“You have no right to impede your sound on other people’s properties,” said Sabrina Carrillo, who’s become the de facto leader of a group of proponents for stricter enforcement. “We all have a legal right to peace in our home.” She means all hours, all the time.

That’s where the board has to do the hard work of finding the middle ground. It’s unreasonable to limit noise at all hours, all the time. But Carrillo has already followed up with an email to the board threatening to take legal action seeking a more stringent ordinance.

In recent discussions about the noise ordinance, there’s been another argument presented, in opposition a stricter ordinance. Some community members claim the effort to regulate noise is racist, because they expect it will disproportionately affect Latino property owners throwing parties. (Worth noting: other jurisdictions, including the majority-Latino city of Salinas, have noise ordinances on the books.) This is where the real rub comes in for how the ordinance plays in real life: If the intent is to curb massive, pay-to-enter parties, not family barbecues – the stated goal by the supervisors – will it work?

“I don’t want to sit up here and pick apart an ordinance because it’s not perfect,” said Supervisor Chris Lopez, urging the board to proceed. “It’s about putting the ball in the court and seeing how it plays.”

Finally, hopefully, the supervisors will vote to do that. Certainly some residents will be unhappy no matter what. But it’s past time to take action.

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