Proposed changes to the county's noise ordinance are intended to help clarify regulations, improve understanding, and upgrade enforcement components, according to the county.
San Diego County Planning Commission's 5-1 vote, with Adam Day opposed and John Riess absent, sends the recommendations to the county supervisors, who are expected to hear the ordinance on Nov. 19.
I think it's the role of the county as a public trust agency to address these issues," said Commissioner Michael Beck at the Oct. 31 meeting. “An awful lot of work went into crafting what sounds like a balanced approach."
The update addresses noise level limits in specific areas, construction noise limits, a new methodology for short-term noises exceeding ordinance limits, and standards for impulsive noise and off-road vehicles.
The new restrictions on off-road vehicles resulted in comments from proponents and opponents at the commission hearing in May 2 and led to a decision to return the proposal to county staff for more review. Public testimony that multiple motorcycles or other off-road vehicles would make noise more irritating but would not increase the sound level led to the conclusion that neighbors' problems might not be solved by a decibel limit. Testimony also pointed out that the nighttime prohibition against off-road motorized vehicles would apply to telescope-transporting carts and to mobility scooters and other non-recreational vehicles.
Singling out off-road vehicles led to Day's opposition.
"I think that's fundamentally wrong," he said. "I think it's wrong to single out the legitimate use of your off-road vehicles on private property. Noise is noise."
Commissioner David Kreitzer noted a difference between off-road vehicle noise and construction noise.
"Construction noise is always temporary," he said. "This kind of thing can go on year after year."
Revisions limit the maximum noise for off-road vehicles to 82 decibels between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The Code of Federal Regulations requires that any off-road motorcycle manufactured after Jan. 1, 1986, not exceed 82 decibels when measured by the federal "pass-by" test for motorcycles. The California Vehicle Code limits any off-highway vehicle manufactured after Jan. 1, 1986, to 82 decibels.
"The proposed standards are consistent with both the Federal EPA regulations and the California Vehicle Code," said county Department of Planning and Land Use planning manager Joe Farace.
The noise limit is at the property line. Nearly all motorcycles that meet standards and have not undergone any tampering will meet the 82 decibel limit if ridden at least 50 feet away from the property line.
The noise limit for off-road vehicles was increased to 77 decibels between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. and to 55 decibels between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The standards are in addition to the existing one-hour average for general noise limits.
"I think they have struck a balance here in San Diego," said Meg Grossglass of the Off-Road Business Association.
Grossglass cautioned that acceptable numbers don't negate the right to ride on private property.
In addition to the off-road vehicle noise restrictions, the addition of the Lmax measurement methodology into the ordinance allows the county to capture short-duration events or episodes of high intensity that cannot be adequately sampled by a one-hour average.
Proposed sound levels for impulsive noise are 82 decibels where properties are zoned for residential, village zoning or civic use and 85 decibels in agricultural, commercial or industrial areas. Because public road projects benefit an entire community and often move in a linear fashion while private construction projects usually impact a single site for a longer period of time, higher limits of 85 decibels in residential, village or civic zones and 90 decibels in agricultural, commercial or industrial zones are allowed for public road projects. The section includes an exemption for emergency work.
An average limit of 75 decibels for an eight-hour period also applies.
Acoustics consultant Charles Terry advised the commission that peak noise levels for extremely short periods of time would exceed those measured by the Lmax methodology.
Other than emergency work, construction equipment operations are limited to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and are prohibited on Sundays and specified holidays, although a person performing non-commercial construction on his own residence can operate such equipment between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays and holidays.
Because the prohibition against nighttime construction work is a county ordinance, it applies only to property under County of San Diego jurisdiction and not to California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) right-of-way. While most nighttime construction for road improvement projects is performed by Caltrans, the county utilized nighttime work to construct passing lanes on Wildcat Canyon Road between Lakeside and the Barona Casino.
"There's a waiver process that you can go through," Farace said.
The general one-hour average sound limits between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. are 50 decibels for properties with RS, RD, RR and RMH residential zoning, A70 and A72 agricultural zoning, S80 open space zoning, S87 limited control zoning, S90 holding area zoning, and S92 general rural zoning.
Properties with RV and RU residential zoning have a limit of 50 decibels during those hours if the density is less than 11 dwelling units per acre and a limit of 55 decibels if the density meets or exceeds 11 dwelling units per acre. Property with RRO, RC or RM residential zoning, and S86 parking zoning is subject to a one-hour average maximum of 55 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
All commercial zones and S94 transportation and utility corridor zones have a one-hour average limit of 60 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., the one-hour average maximum is 45 decibels in RS, RD, RR, RMH, A70, A72, S80, S87, and S92 zones and for RV and RU properties with a density of less than 11 dwelling units per acre, 50 decibels in RRO, RC, RM, and S86 zones and in RV and RU zones with a density of at least 11 dwelling units per acre and 55 decibels in commercial and S94 zones.
Industrial M50, M52, and M54 areas have a 70 decibel average limit for all hours. Areas with M56 mixed industrial, M58 high-impact industrial, and S82 extractive use zoning have an average limit of 75 decibels for all hours.
Specific plan areas with S88 zoning allow for various uses within that specific plan, and the type of use determines the one-hour average limit.
The revisions do not change the limits within the interior of a multiple-family dwelling unit which can be heard within another dwelling unit. At no time can the noise heard within another dwelling unit exceed 45 decibels between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. or 55 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. For a one-hour period, the noise cannot exceed 40 decibels for one minute during the night hours or 50 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The allowable noise for a five-minute period during one hour is limited to 35 decibels for all hours.
John Bennett, noise enforcement officer for the county Department of Planning and Land Use, noted that the addition of the Lmax standard didn't eliminate the hourly average maximums.
"I can use both standards at the same time," he said.
While a variance for non-emergency roadwork at night must include findings that the activity cannot be feasibly performed during daytime hours, county permits can also be issued for sporting, entertainment, or public events and exemptions also include noise reasonably related to authorized school band, athletic, and entertainment activity. The reasonable testing of an emergency generator between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. is also exempt.
The new language also defines an off-road recreational vehicle as a motor vehicle being operated other than on a public or private roadway regardless of whether the vehicle was designed or intended for off-road use. Such vehicles include but are not limited to motorcycles, go-carts, campers, dune buggies, all-terrain vehicles, racecars, automobiles, sports utility vehicles, pickup trucks, or other trucks. Agricultural vehicles are not considered to be off-road vehicles.
"Less than one percent of all complaints were OHV related," said off-highway vehicle user John Elliott of Descanso. "The system works."
Elliott's concerns were singling out off-road users and the broad definition of a potentially offending vehicle.
"If you pull your vehicle into your driveway, get out, and slam the door, you will violate the county sound ordinance," he said. "Fifty-five decibels just doesn't work."
Elliott said that enforcement of other ordinances, as well as state and federal laws, would address the situation.
"We feel it just goes too far," he said of the commission’s proposed changes. "We're very supportive of keeping these vehicles quiet and being good neighbors."
Although a driveway or driveway easement may not be considered a public road, Farace believes that the county's Code Enforcement division wouldn't spend staff resources on technical violations.
"There has to be an element of common sense," he said.
"I'm subject to more restrictions on my own private property than I am on the street," said John Roberts of San Diego. "This type of ordinance can be subject to abuse by neighbors that just don't like each other."
The county's Noise Ordinance was initially adopted in 1967, and the last major revision was approved by county supervisors in early 1982.