Deep Thoughts With Chris Bopst

Posted by: Necci – May 20, 2011


I feel sorry for the people that elected Charles Samuels. They cast their vote for a screaming incompetent. Well, to be honest, I don’t really feel sorry for them. They got what they deserved.

The councilman's defining legislative ineptitude during his tenure as the representative from the city’s 2nd district is as baffling as some of his constituents’ inexplicable insistence on pastoral living, despite residing in a densely populated urban area home to the state’s largest public university. Why anyone who desired the quiet life would make the decision to live in a city is open to bemused conjecture, but to then have a representative who has made it his mission to cater to these irrational few with continually flawed and constitutionally challenged legislation is breathtaking even in a town long defined by its history of municipal absurdities. Samuels’s latest foray into empowering the crank comes in the comedic form of his recently revised “sound control” ordinance, after his first city council approved regulation was ruled unconstitutional by Richmond District Chief Judge Robert A. Pustilnik on November 30, 2010. While some of the more legally problematic provisions have been omitted in the current proposal (the exception for religious services has been removed), the current legislation sets acceptable nighttime audio levels at 55 decibels.

How loud is 55 decibels? According to the National Institute of Health, the average human conversation registers around 60 decibels. So, as currently written, most verbal exchanges within city limits after dark would be in violation of the law. Daytime noise limits would be set at 65 decibels--high enough to not criminalize normal conversation, but low enough to make it illegal if said conversation were to contain robust laughter.

Oh, how I wish I were kidding.

In Samuels’s proposal, basically any sound made in the city would be a Class 4 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $250. “While I understand that no ordinance is perfect, and undoubtedly some will find fault with this ordinance, “ Samuels wrote on April 11th about his sound ordinance proposal, “I am proud of the effort put forth by the work group who helped craft this ordinance.”

I am impressed that the councilman takes pride in his inability to craft enforceable legislation. Given his track record, acceptance of failure is understandable, but to take pride in it? That is extraordinary.

Despite my continuing bewilderment with Samuels and city hall, I do agree that some sort of legal recourse needs to be established for dealing with habitual noise polluters. In the exceedingly rare case when an individual or a community is truly being oppressed by sound, simple enforcement of pre-existing laws are more than adequate to address the issue. Having cops patrolling the city’s streets with dB meters issuing criminal citations for noise infractions based on legislation that is vague, open to subjective interpretation, and won’t hold up under judicial scrutiny is not. It is a needless waste of valuable taxpayer-funded time. Again, if the city was under siege by a sustained onslaught of oppressive sound, offenders could be easily silenced for disturbing the peace, but to propose legislation that makes the fleeting annoyances of urban living a criminal offense is beyond preposterous.

It is a legislative travesty.

Who I feel most sorry for in this continuing comedy of errors are the people who feel they are being oppressed by noise. They must certainly live lives of unspeakable misery. Considering their acute sensitivity to sound and the certainty of being exposed to extraneous noise, why they would choose to live in a crowded urban environment blares volumes about the legally unsound delusion behind this proposed legislation that criminalizes everyday audio occurrences.

City living is not against the law.


Chris Bopst is a longtime contributor to the Richmond music scene. His podcast can be heard every week on