Editors note: This article was updated on Sunday, Nov. 15, to include an addition in the current ordinance.
By Peter Vankevich and Connie Leinbach
Proposed changes in the local noise ordinance could affect the essence of what Ocracoke is–or should be–for both islanders and visitors.
In the coming weeks, Hyde County officials will take decibel readings around the village to further explore changing this regulation.
This is the upshot of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association meeting Wednesday night where islanders talked about proposed changes to the noise ordinance by Hyde County. County Manager Bill Rich would like to present any revisions to the county commissioners at their Jan.4 meeting and asked for the island’s input.
According to the ordinance, enacted a few years ago, outdoor amplified music cannot exceed 70 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
After that, the ordinance has no decibel guidelines, but does say the following:
8) Any noise between the hours of 10 pm and 7am the following day such that the sound creates a noise disturbance across a real property boundary or within a noise sensitive zone, except for emergency work.
“I think 43 is a fair compromise and enforceable,” Rich said, via telephone conferencing at the OCBA meeting. “It projects that Ocracoke is a family community. We gotta compromise.”
What prompted tinkering with the ordinance has been the wrangling this season over after 10 p.m. noise levels between the Ocracoke Bar & Grille, owned by Sean and Laurie Death, and Oscar’s House B&B, which is across the street and owned by Ann Ehringhaus.
The restaurant-bar, which opened in March, offers live music in the evenings (up until 10 p.m.), and remains open until 2 a.m. Late-night noise from there has drifted across the road disturbing the sleep of the B&B patrons, Ehringhaus has said.
She made complaints several times this season culminating in the Hyde County Sheriffs issuing a citation to Death for violating the ordinance after 10 p.m.
A judge upheld the ordinance as written at a court hearing on Oct. 1.
Ehringhaus said at the OCBA meeting that guests at her B&B have complained “almost every day” about the noise levels at night.
She said she was awakened on three different nights at 1 a.m.
“I was awakened by noise from people talking and laughing across the street,” she said. “If you have 25 people on an open porch talking and drinking it makes a lot of noise. It doesn’t matter if it’s amplified music or people, it’s too much. My customers complain almost every day. If you are running a business, what would you do?”
Death and Will Doerfer, special assistant Hyde County manager, have done independent research on coastal noise ordinances. Death provided his findings at the OCBA meeting. Of the several communities listed, a number have ordinances with different levels at different times of the day and range from 45 to 70 decibels.
“Forty-three decibels is a quiet office environment,” Doerfer said in an interview before the meeting. “Forty-five is enough to wake a sleeping person.”
He said he got his decibel numbers from a Purdue University website and also received more than 20 letters from island residents advocating for the lower decibel level.
At the OCBA meeting, Death said 43 decibels is “unreasonable and unattainable.”
“We can stand outside and be silent and pick up noise that will be more than 43 decibels,” Death said.
He suggested a reading of 53 decibels from the middle of the road.
He agreed that live music should stop at 10 p.m. and suggested that deputies enforce the ordinance island-wide as they drive around at night and not wait until a neighbor complains.
Besides Ehringhaus and Death, several other islanders weighed in on the issue.
“We are trying to have a peaceful existence,” said Philip Howard. “Whether we live here or visit, we don’t want to hear noise all night long.”
Sundae Horn, OCBA’s tourism director, said the ordinance should take into consideration that the summer would be expected to be humming with noise while the winter would be quiet.
Mickey Baker said that at 10 o’clock when she has guests, they all go inside to continue the party so they don’t bother her neighbors.
“It has turned into a circus in the middle of the ocean,” she said about the island. “We need to bring the noise down by taking it inside.”
Others noted that vacationers talk and party on rental property porches throughout the island, and that many visitors—both young and older—want to go out at night.
“We’re back to being respectful of our neighbors,” Darlene Styron noted. “We have a mix of residential and commercial together.”
Ehringhaus, in comments she circulated to OCBA members, suggested the decibel level actually be lowered to 65 “with possible exceptions allowed for special events with sound then up to 70 decibels.”
Rich said the community has to come to a decision as to who we are.
Publishers’ note: Connie Leinbach is secretary of the OCBA