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Outcry stifles Culpeper noise-law changes

Culpeper County’s noise ordinance is right back where it started.

And it is more restrictive than it would have been had not a public uproar forced at least two members of the Board of Supervisors to change their position and vote down several proposed changes to the three-year-old ordinance.

At the end of a marathon four-hour meeting Tuesday night in a circus-like atmosphere where 38 speakers came to the podium during a public hearing, the supervisors voted 6–1 to table the changes indefinitely, or at least until a federal appeals case on the subject is decided.

Supervisor Sue Hansohn, saying that the old law would restrict the rights of gun owners who want to do target practice on their own property, cast the only negative vote.

The proposed changes arose from a situation where several residents in a Boston community complained that a neighbor has been driving four-wheelers and motorbikes on his property after dark. One resident, Cindy Thornhill, said at several public hearings that she had asked the neighbor to restrict his hours, but he had refused.

Among the changes designed to give the existing ordinance more teeth was a proposal to make infractions a Class II misdemeanor and stiffen the penalties to $300 for the first offense and up to $1,000 for a third conviction within 12 months.

A lengthy list of exemptions included everything from target practice to farm noise.

Hysteria, however, began to spread in the blogs and on the newspaper opinion pages, and it grew each time the Board of Supervisors postponed a vote on the changes.

Opponents flooded supervisors with emails and calls, and more than 150 residents showed up for Tuesday’s hearing. Some passed out leaflets at the door.

Feeling the pressure, the supervisors watered down the proposed changes even more minutes prior to the public hearing.

They voted 6–1 to leave the hours as they had been in the existing ordinance (7 a.m. to 10 p.m. as opposed to the proposed daylight to dark) and removed wording that gave residents the right to seek their own arrest warrants.

The second change, which downgraded a violation to an “unclassified” misdemeanor, came after a magistrate spoke and said that state law permits any citizen to seek a warrant for an infraction of almost any existing law. He added, however, that seeking is not always receiving and that magistrates use discretion in such matters.

Despite the board’s attempts to appease the audience, speaker after speaker, in the shadow of an increased police presence, voiced opposition to the proposals.

Nick Fritas brought a resolution against the changes from the Culpeper County Republican Committee, while his wife, Tina, read a similar one from the Founding Fathers Republican Women. The former called the changes “unconstitutional,” while the latter said they were “a threat to individual rights.”

Veterinarian Michael Watts took pictures of the audience before the meeting while Christmas carols played on a device in his pocket, an apparent reference to the claim that the proposed changes would effectively outlaw caroling. He said the proposed 75-decibel maximum noise level was too strict.

“If you can’t hear it in a neighboring residence, it shouldn’t be a noise violation,” he told the supervisors.

A Culpeper County school bus driver worried that she would get arrested for starting her bus at 5 a.m. and said the ordinance might have a detrimental effect on public education. An air traffic controller said her husband would not be able to blow show from the driveway and that her absence from work might affect planes landing from all across the country.

Another woman said she worried that she would get in trouble if her cow mooed and a man said this neighbor might have him arrested because the fire in his back-deck grill was too loud.

A woman said that “a love thy neighbor as thyself” policy was better than a noise ordinance, but Perry Cabot countered that it would be “unreasonable” for an elderly shut-in or a woman alone with small children to “walk across the street and challenge a loud, pistol-packing, beer-guzzling party at midnight.”

Chuck Duncan told the board to “revoke this ordinance; there is nothing in there that can be enforced.”

Steve Jenkins said the ordinance and the proposed changes should be “taken to the landfill and dumped. We have enough laws.”

Shortly before 11 p.m., with emotions still running high, Supervisor Steve Nixon proposed the indefinite tabling. The motion was seconded by Jack Frazier, who suggested that some future ordinance should be crafted with the help of law enforcement and all those in Tuesday night’s audience.

It was at that point that County Attorney Sandra Robinson pointed out that the board had already voted on several changes before the public hearing and that she was not certain whether those changes were to the original ordinance or to the proposed revision.

Following a 10-minute break, Robinson ruled that the votes had been relative to the proposed changes and not the original ordinance, which would be left in place if the tabling action occurred.

So, in a true 11th-hour move, a weary Board of Supervisors voted to postpone the noise ordinance revisions indefinitely.

Perhaps board members hoped, as one resident mumbled as he left for home, “Maybe now it will just all go away.”

Donnie Johnston: