Noise limits in downtown boosted

Weekends can get louder on Main Street; council to reevaluate law this fall

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Downtown revelry will get a bit more leeway this summer, after Littleton City Council unanimously passed an ordinance on March 2 boosting the allowable sound level on Main Street.

The ordinance allows a maximum sound level of 80 decibels in the Main Street historic district from noon to 10 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays. The previous limit was 60 decibels all days of the week. The ordinance will sunset at the end of October, at which time council plans to evaluate its effectiveness.

The ordinance initially came before council in a much looser form, which would have expanded the window for higher noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and would have included the entire downtown area — stretching into residential and office areas several blocks to the north and south — rather than just Main Street itself.

Community Development Director Jennifer Henninger apologized for the process used to bring the measure before council, saying her office got an earful from concerned residents that the proposal was far too lenient and wondering why more public engagement had not taken place.

“In terms of public process, there was not one,” Henninger told council. “We did not follow our best practices when it came to this. We saw this as a simple change and Band-Aid to our ordinance... My sincere apologies, that will not happen again.”

Watch the March 2 city council meeting

Henninger said the call for the ordinance came about last summer, when Main Street played host to Weekends on Main, an outdoor dining program meant to help restaurants and shops hit hard by COVID restrictions.

The city's existing code allowed decibel levels of 55 in the daytime and 50 at night in residential districts, and 60 in the daytime and 55 at night in business districts.

Read city council's packet on the ordinance

Those levels proved unworkable during Weekends on Main, Henninger said, when live music sometimes exceeded the limits.

A code enforcement officer found levels of 74 decibels in the middle of Main Street during the event, 77 when standing near live music, and 68 when standing near the residences at Bega Park.

Boosting the limit seemed like the answer in order to allow businesses the flexibility to host live music during a tough time, Henninger said.

Events can already apply for amplified sound permits that allow up to 115 decibels, but with Weekends on Main expected to resume as soon as April, city staff hoped to streamline the code.

Residents who called into the meeting expressed dismay at the proposal.

“Eighty decibels is outrageous,” said Pam Chadbourne, a frequent city council watchdog who lives near Main Street. “Sure, traffic is loud at rush hour, but I don't go to Main Street at rush hour because it's loud.”

Chadbourne also said she is concerned for wildlife along the nearby South Platte River who may be disturbed by regular loud noises.

Some councilmembers were skeptical of the proposed ordinance.

“Preserving community character comes up really high on our surveys, and our citizens are our customers — who we're elected to represent,” said Councilmember Carol Fey, saying staff's research lacked sufficient testing of noise levels in the residential neighborhoods surrounding Main Street. “Community character includes nuisances or the lack thereof.”

The ordinance was a way to compromise between competing interests in downtown, said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Melin.

“It's obvious our current code on sound in downtown is completely unworkable,” Melin said. “We must take a step toward modernizing our code, and balancing legitimate interests in downtown. Businesses have an interest in making some noise. You want a dining room full of people. We want downtown to be active and thriving and busy. But we also have residences downtown. One thing that will destroy character of life is constant annoying noises. A trial run is called for.”

The ordinance reflects the changing nature of downtown, said Mayor Jerry Valdes, from a place where people shop during the day to an entertainment district with lively nightlife.

“It wasn't long ago Main Street was quiet in the evening,” Valdes said. “Times have changed. Businesses have found a way to attract people, and now nighttime is the busiest time on Main Street ... The entrepreneurs have done a great job.”

Councilmember Kelly Milliman said the change to a livelier downtown is a positive, and the increased noise limit reflects that.

“When I moved to Littleton, Main Street was a ghost town,” Milliman said. “A sad, sleepy Main Street. Now people are paying big bucks to live in downtown Littleton ... We want to keep it vibrant.”

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