Parties Split on Noise Ordinance in Fairfield as GOP Members Fret Added Burden on Police

Democratic RTM member Jill Vergara amended the noise ordinance on Monday to address police and RTM member concerns (Credit: Fair TV)


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

FAIRFIELD – Officials approved new noise rules after seven months of partisan debate, but some Republican members still question the need for the ordinance, calling it an unnecessary burden on police officers and city residents.

The updated ordinance, which was originally proposed in February by a group of Democrats in the Representative Town Meeting, limits daytime noise levels, prohibits yard work after 8 p.m., and allows police to use their own discretion when responding to noise complaints rather than relying solely on noise monitors.

The sponsors of the ordinance urged support across the aisle at the Monday RTM meeting. They argued that existing noise regulations from 1985 are not compliant with state law and have not properly encouraged Fairfield police to respond to the increase in noise complaints over the last few years – a 30 percent jump from 366 complaints in 2019 to 474 in 2021.

But at the Monday RTM meeting, Republicans in opposition said they were worried the law was too burdensome on police and unhelpful to most residents.

“You want bipartisan support. But you don’t necessarily get it if there’s an ordinance or something that comes out that’s just not supported by both sides,” Republican RTM member Jeff Steele said.

Of the 37 RTM members present at the meeting, 9 voted against the ordinance. One opponent, Ed Bateson, said he appreciates compromises made throughout the approval process, but said he doesn’t see the need for an updated ordinance.

“This is an ordinance that could affect the whole town,” Bateson said. “When we do stuff like this, I really would like to see more overwhelming evidence for it or… a public cry for it. I just don’t see that in this.”

Another burden on police?

Bateson, who questioned the ordinance back in April when it came before the RTM Legislation and Administration Committee, told CT Examiner on Tuesday that earlier concerns from the police union and Police Commission drove his opposition.

In a June letter to the RTM, the local police union called a previous iteration of the ordinance “excessive” because it removed some police discretion and placed “yet another burden” on the department.

The existing 1985 regulations allow police officers to issue penalties based on data from sound level meters. But under the new proposal, officers can also penalize excessive “plainly audible” noise – sound that is easily heard by officers without equipment – coming from speakers, televisions and radios.

Bateson said he was unsure how the plainly audible standard would actually be implemented by police, and was weary of approving regulations that promoted penalties for residents.

“They had a very compelling argument that the language was forcing them to take action, [whereas] 21st century policing policies are more about reconciliation and conflict resolution. And I thought that was very interesting,” he said. “This was promoting penalizing people.”

After numerous meetings with police personnel, Jill Vergara, a Democratic member of the RTM and a sponsor of the ordinance, submitted some amendments to the rules on Monday to reach a compromise. One of the changes clarified that regulation enforcement was solely to up police discretion. 

The RTM unanimously approved the amendments, including those who later opposed the ordinance as a whole.

Bateson recalled a conversation he had with a recently-retired Fairfield police officer about restrictions on police, which led him to question town policing priorities and oppose the ordinance.

“He’s just like, ‘Ed, I’ve got people pushing cart loads of stolen merchandise out of ALDI – I can’t do anything. I’ve got juvenile delinquents terrorizing the Post Road, putting people’s lives in danger on a Saturday afternoon at 2 o’clock – I can’t do anything,’” Bateson recounted. “‘And then you guys are doing this – telling me to go to people’s houses, knock on the door and tell them to turn down the stereo. Where are your priorities at?’”

On a Tuesday phone call with CT Examiner, Vergara said she believes some of the pushback from police and RTM members stems from misunderstanding. 

She said the new regulations were meant to strengthen current laws, which have been in place for almost 40 years. Those who believe that the ordinance is too stringent or a new concept are misinformed, she said.

“I think a lot of the criticism was phrased almost in a way like we don’t already have an ordinance,” Vergara said. “The majority of changes that we made were bringing this into compliance with state law – the large majority. The other changes were out of compromise.”

Vergara said increased resident complaints necessitate additional police controls.

Increased noise complaints

During the pandemic, she said, she started to receive complaints about noise from leaf blowers and late-night music coming from houses, event venues, Sacred Heart University and Fairfield University. In particular, she said events at Burr Mansion – a town-owned venue – prompted concern from surrounding neighbors.

“One of the things that really got my attention was when someone reached out – I think it was a group of 20 or 25 neighbors around the Burr Mansion – about the issues that they were experiencing specifically during the pandemic, where the Burr Mansion started holding more events just at an astronomical pace,” she said.

Since proposing the new ordinance, Vergara said she has received 44 emails from residents in favor of the ordinance, 20 against and three with mixed opinions.

But at the meeting, opponents argued that it is unfair to impose restrictions on the entire town when noise complaints come primarily from the beach areas and neighborhoods surrounding the colleges.

RTM member Karen McCormack, a Republican, acknowledged noise complaints by the beaches and colleges, but said there was no proof of an “overwhelming demand” for increased noise controls across Fairfield.

“Adding up the emails, we have 63,000 citizens and we have 67 emails,” McCormack said. “I don’t think that that is a mandate at all.”

Steele said noise complaints are primarily from residents along the shoreline, and from what he has seen in his own district – the northern section of Fairfield beside Sacred Heart – there have been few issues around the college.

“I haven’t had one complaint in 16 years being a member. I’ve never had one complaint about noise,” Steele said. “So, I know it exists. I’m not saying it doesn’t. But I don’t know that there’s an overwhelming sense of town-wide approval for this for me to support it.”

But residents who attended the RTM meeting questioned whether the noise complaints needed to be a town-wide problem in order for officials to take action.

Erin Greenwald, who lives next to Burr Mansion, encouraged members to vote in favor of the ordinance whether or not their neighborhoods are impacted by excessive noise.

“It’s very strange to hear someone suggest that because it overwhelmingly affects a small part of town, that no one else should care about it,” Greenwald said. “That feels very callous to me.”

Alyssa Israel, a neighbor to Penfield Beach who was one of the first to bring the issue to Vergara’s attention, passed around a map of noise complaint distribution from 2017 until March 2023 that she received from Fairfield police.

While the beach area had a disproportionate amount of complaints, Israel said, 70 percent of the complaints came from the rest of Fairfield. In total, the map included 2,288 complaints since 2017.

“I do think 2,300 complaints is quite a lot, and some people are suffering from repeat offenses,” Israel said.

In addition to limiting loud yard work, limiting daytime hours to 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekends and adding the “plainly audible” provision, the approved ordinance requires police personnel to report to the RTM every January on the full list noise complaints, including their locations and dates.

Fairfield Police Chief Robert Kalamaras did not respond to a Tuesday request for comment prior to publication.