This page provides examples of local noise control policies in Washington State, as well as relevant statutes and court decisions.
It is part of MRSC's series on Nuisances: Regulation and Abatement.
Inadequately controlled noise can adversely affects people's health, safety, welfare, property values, and the environment. Common examples of noise nuisances include amplified noise (loud music), industrial noises (such as construction or mechanical equipment), automotive noises (such as loud mufflers or compression brakes), and animal noises (such as livestock or barking dogs).
Cities and counties in Washington follow three basic approaches to control noise problems:
- (1) Adoption of noise control provisions based upon the state Noise Control Act, chapter 70A.20 RCW (formerly chapter 70.107), utilizing decibel-based standards;
- (2) Adoption of subjective "public disturbance noise" standards, which do not require the use of decibel meters for enforcement; or
- (3) A combination of these two approaches.
Many smaller cities and towns have chosen the "public disturbance noise" approach.
RCW 70A.20.030(1) empowers the Department of Ecology (DOE) to establish maximum noise levels in identified areas or environments. The rules adopted by DOE establishing maximum permissible noise levels are contained in chapter 173-60 WAC, relating to maximum environmental noise levels, and chapter 173-62 WAC, relating to motor vehicle noise performance standards.
- Chapter 173-60 WAC establishes three classes of environmental designations for noise abatement (EDNA), which are the areas or zones within which the maximum permissible noise levels are set. These EDNA zones are defined with respect to land use and can usually be applied to previously established classifications in existing zoning ordinances or comprehensive plans.
- Chapter 173-62 WAC relates to motor vehicle noise performance standards and establishes maximum permissible sound levels for motor vehicles on all public highways.
- State v. Immelt, 173 Wn.2d 1 (2011) - The court found a free speech violation in a Snohomish County ordinance that prohibited sounding a car horn except for public safety reasons.
- Holland v. City of Tacoma, 90 Wn. App. 533, 954 P.2d 290 (1998) - Tacoma's noise ordinance, which prohibits the playing of car sound systems at a volume that would be "audible" at a distance of greater than 50 feet, was held to be constitutional.
- Seattle v. Eze, 111 Wn.2d 22, 759 P.2d 366 (1988) - The court upheld a Seattle ordinance that prohibited "unreasonably" disturbing others with "loud or raucous behavior" while on a public bus. The ordinance met constitutional requirements of sufficient certainty to provide adequate notice and to avoid arbitrary enforcement.
- Spokane v. Fischer, 110 Wn.2d 541, 754 P.2d 1241 (1988) - An ordinance prohibiting frequent and habitual dog barking that disturbs or annoys “any other person or neighborhood” was found unconstitutionally vague.
- Everett v. O'Brien, 31 Wn. App. 319, 641 P.2d 714 (1982) - The court upheld Everett's public nuisance noise ordinance in response to a claim that decibel measurements are required in order to establish a violation. The court affirmed that violations could be established under a public nuisance approach.
Local government across Washington have varied approached to regulating noise nuisances, from using a decibal-based approach to regulate a variety of noises, to identifying and regulating specific noises.
The Decibel-Based Approach
From a practical standpoint, the decibel-based standards approach is the most difficult to enforce. This method requires the adoption and/or enforcement of noise control provisions enacted pursuant to RCW 70A.20.030(1). Local governments may enact similar provisions establishing noise limitations for areas within their jurisdictions. RCW 70A.20.060(3) requires that any difference between the local regulations and those provided for by the state must be approved by DOE. If DOE has not acted within 90 days after a local ordinance has been submitted, the local provision is automatically approved.
Quite a few Washington cities and counties have adopted combined public nuisance and decibel-based ordinances. Some pair the EDNA set forth in chapter 173-60 WAC with zoning codes to establish maximum permissible environmental noise levels for specifically designated or zoned areas.
Examples of Decibel-Based Ordinances
All of the examples below set maximum permissible decibel levels within thier jurisduction, often making distinctions between differently zoned areas, and also allow for exemptions, such as noise produced by emergency vehicles, electrical substations, or utility installations. Many also offer the opportunity to obtain variances when producing prohibited noise in a temporary way, such as during a construction project.
- Bellevue Municipal Code Ch. 9.18 — Establishes quiet zones in a specific community park and a greenbelt access area and offers different, defining additional noises prohibited in these areas
- Kent Municipal Code Ch. 8.05 — Sets forth which EDNA designation applies in each of the city’s zones
- Seattle Municipal Code Ch. 25.08 — Requires applicants submit a Noise Management and Mitigation Plan when submitting for a variance
- Spokane Municipal Code Ch. 10.08D — Offers exemptions for permitted special events under certain conditions
- Thurston County Code Ch. 10.36 and Ch. 10.38 — On the list of exempted items is noise generated through customary agricultural activities and in off-highway vehicles in off-road vehicle parks
- Tukwila Municipal Code Ch. 8.22 — Exempts aircraft noise, including noise generated when engines are being tested and/or maintained
The Public Disturbance Approach
Another approach to the problem of noise control is through the enforcement of "public disturbance" noise ordinances. Public disturbance noise ordinances are based upon a subjective standard as opposed to measures of maximum decibel readings. Public disturbance noise provisions, while perhaps easier to enforce, may raise constitutional questions. Provisions must be sufficiently detailed to place a person on notice of what constitutes a violation but prohibitions cannot be so broad as to impinge on free speech.
Examples of Public Nuisance/Disturbance Noise Ordinances
- Chelan Municipal Code Ch. 8.31 — Defines a public disturbance noise as loud, raucous, frequent, repetitive, or continuous and includes, but is not limited to, construction activity at non-approved times, audio equipment, including portable or vehicle audio, and vehicle horns or sirens clearly heard by someone at a distance of 75 ft. or more
- Kirkland Ordinance No. O-4804 (2022) — Prohibits busking in public areas without a permit; no busker may generate noise that can be heard 50 or more feet from the source; provides other limitations and regulations
- Lakewood Municipal Code Ch. 8.36 — Provides that yelling, shouting, whistling, or singing on a public street in a manner that disturbs the peace is a violation. Restricts the hours that noise from construction and/or lawn/ground maintenance are allowed, from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. on the weekdays and 10:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. on the weekends
- Oak Harbor Municipal Code Ch. 6.56 — Includes among possible public disturbances: the keeping of any animal and/or bird making frequent or long, continued noise
- Omak Municipal Code Ch. 7.20 — Includes among possible public disturbances: yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling, or singing on or near public streets at any time or place
Regulation of Audio Devices
These are generally sections within codes that address broader issues, such as noises or vehicle parking.
Examples of Audio Device Ordinances
- Bellevue Municipal Code Sec. 9.18.042 — Creates quiet zones in which noises such as those coming from audio devices are prohibited if they can be heard from over 30 ft. away
- Ocean Shores Municipal Code Sec. 10.08.060 — Restricts sound from portable and vehicle stereo equipment such that it not be audible more than 50 ft. from the source, increasing the distance to no greater than 100 ft. for portable stereos on the ocean beach
Regulation of Construction Noises
Some jurisdictions regulate construction site noise by establishing designated hours for permitted construction for certain zones, such as residential zones. Others regulate construction noise through a provision in their general noise control ordinance.
Examples of Construction Noise Ordinances
- Issaquah Municipal Code Ch. 16.35 — Permits construction noise from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. during the weekdays. Allows individuals or entities to apply for extended hours via a permit process
- Poulsbo Municipal Code Ch. 15.32 — Prohibits construction activity within 1,000 ft. of any residence between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and on federal, state, or city-observed holidays. Weekend prohibited hours are 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.
- Tumwater Municipal Code Sec. 8.08.030(G) — Limits construction activity that is audible from a dwelling to certain hours
Regulation of Mechanical Equipment
Noise from mechanical equipment, such as heat pumps, is often the subject of code enforcement complaints. Noise-generating mechanical equipment is generally required to meet the noise limits set by DOE in chapter 173.60 WAC, as well as local ordinances. Mechanical equipment is also regulated by building and zoning codes. Some jurisdictions provide that mechanical equipment may be located in a setback if the applicable EDNA noise levels are met at the property line.
Examples of Mechanical Equipment Noise Ordinances
- Lynnwood Municipal Code Sec. 21.44.400 (B) — Allows a variance to install a heat pump in a setback if it does not exceed the applicable dBa noise level at property line
- Mercer Island Municipal Code Sec. 19.02.020(C)(3)(e) — Provides a variance for mechanical equipment in a setback if it does not exceed the maximum permissible noise levels set forth in WAC 173-60-040 and is not less than three feet from the property line
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.44.014(D)(12) — Requires mechanical equipment to comply with the city’s noise control provisions and restricts this equipment from being located within three feet of any lot line. Includes charging devices for electric cars
- Woodland Municipal Code Sec. 17.16.080(A) — Requires that mechanical equipment be visually screened and not disturb neighboring properties in low-density residential zones
Regulation of Power Equipment
While power tools are often viewed as labor-saving devices, they can also be quite noisy. Many cities have regulated the times during which these tools may be used.
Examples of Power Equipment Noise Ordinances
- Kirkland Zoning Code Sec. 115.95(2) — Prohibited before 8:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m. weekdays and before 9:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. on weekends or on specific federal holidays
- Shoreline Municipal Code Sec. 9.05.010(C)(9) — Prohibited between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 10:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. on weekends
- Tumwater Municipal Code Sec. 8.08.030 (N) — Allowed between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. on weekdays or between 9:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. on weekends
Regulation of Rock Crushing and Gravel Operations
Generally, noises from manufacturing and extraction are regulated through performance measures.
Examples of Rock Crushing and Gravel Operation Noise Ordinances
- Jefferson County Code Sec. 18.20.240(2)(f) — Allows mineral extraction, mining, quarrying, and reclamation only between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. on weekdays
- Thurston County Code Sec. 17.20.110 — Requires compliance with DOE regulations regarding noise
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