HALLOWELL — Residents spoke out against a potential weekend volume jump downtown, but city councilors initially approved a draft noise ordinance on Monday.

The City Council Chambers at the City Hall were standing room only as more than 30 people packed the crowd. Five residents spoke, largely speaking against raising the noise level by any amount at any time. Despite the public comment, the council voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the ordinance. Councilor Kara Walker was absent.

The ordinance currently allows 50 decibels overnight — from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. — and 70 decibels from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m in all sections of the city. The new draft, which differs only slightly from one released in December, keeps daytime noise the same, but downtown noise levels on Friday and Saturday go up to 60 decibels from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and remain at 50 decibels from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration likens 50 decibels to the average noise heard outside an “urban residence,” 60 decibels to a “conversation three feet away,” 70 decibels to “classroom chatter” and 80 decibels to a “freight train 100 feet away.”

Eric Zwirling, director of the Rutgers University Noise Technical Assistance Center, told the Kennebec Journal last year that a 10-decibel increase usually represents a “perceived doubling in loudness.” On low frequencies such as bass, however, a 6-decibel increase could be a perceived doubling.

Lynn Irish, a former city councilor and downtown resident, spoke out against the ordinance and said she was confused as to who thought more noise would be necessary downtown.

“In Hallowell, the noise just echoes and bounces around,” she said. “I just want you all to know it’s already noisy, and I just don’t understand why you are proposing to make it noisier.”

Councilor Kate Dufour, the chair of the Noise Ordinance Committee and Ordinance Rewrite Committee, said the ordinance was not designed to create more noise, but it was designed to be enforceable. She added that the quick jump from 70 decibels to 50 decibels could easily be broken by a spirited conversation between friends.

Downtown resident Susan Farnsworth said she was concerned about noise levels in the city, especially because she has heard about proposals for more outdoor venues downtown.

“There were times where I couldn’t even listen to the radio without closing all the windows,” she said. “It’s outdoor venues that are particularly an issue.”

Noise levels can be exceeded during some events. Special events like Old Hallowell Day, Rock on the River and council-approved events are limited at 80 decibels. John Merrill, a Noise Ordinance Committee member who owns Merrill’s Bookstore at 110 Water St., took issue with the council being able to approve loud events and said any time the council approved one event, it would be under pressure to give another approval.

“Anytime you grant an exception to the noise ordinance … you are going to have winners and losers,” he said, adding the nearby Quarry Tap Room turns his bookstore into “a drum” and “destroys” his business. “I would hope the council would approve any such action for any reason.

“Similarly, you’re also harming all nearby residence,” Merill added. “Pretty soon, you are going to have loud music all over town because people want to party.”

Janice Merill, John Merrill’s wife, said she is responsible for renting out the apartment above the bookstore. She approved of the slight increase but was wary of the effect loud noise could have on the value of property downtown. She said she heard of five residents leaving their downtown apartments because it was too loud, but the individuals did not want to speak out.

“Most people just loathe to speak out in this sort of a setting,” she said. “The buildings are being devalued (because people are moving out.)”

Violations carry a fine between $50 and $250 for each separate incident, per the ordinance.

Dufour said the ordinance does not differ in intent from December’s draft, but the Ordinance Rewrite Committee made a couple of semantic changes.

The biggest change, according to Dufour, between the current draft and December’s draft is how noise would be measured. In previous drafts, noise levels would be measured at “all major lot lines at a height of at least four feet above the ground.” The current draft drops the height provision and says noise levels would be measured “at or near any property boundary of the sound source.”

Mayor Mark Walker said the final two readings of the ordinance will be in June. The city requires three readings of an ordinance before it is written into the city’s code of ordinance. Dufour said it was in the city’s best interest to make sure the ordinance is in place before live music is in full swing downtown.

A public hearing on the noise ordinance was scheduled at last month’s meeting, but city staff published the wrong draft of the ordinance for consideration and the hearing was postponed.

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