Letter: Noise bylaws and live music

Kingston’s noise bylaws prohibit the use of amplified music outdoors, but what does that mean for local musicians who simply want to practice or jam with friends? Kingstonist file photo.

The following is a letter to the editor, and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The Kingstonist.

On Aug. 11, 2020, Kingston City Council attached new administrative monetary penalties to two existing bylaws, the ‘nuisance party’ bylaw and the ‘noise’ bylaw.  These fines were intended as a deterrent to help curb the community spread of COVID-19. The connection between nuisance parties and spreading the virus makes sense to me. The link between the spread of COVID-19 and amplified music is less clear.  Is City Hall using the pandemic to strengthen the noise bylaw so it can deal with other problems?

The noise bylaw states: “The following activities are prohibited at all times in residential areas:  Any amplified music or sound that is coming from a speaker or a device” (https://www.cityofkingston.ca/city-hall/bylaws/noise-bylaw).  It does not define an acceptable or unacceptable level of sound, but gives a blanket prohibition of any amplification at any time of the day. I think this is excessive.

Kingston is known as a vibrant city that attracts and nurtures musicians and artists, both professional and amateur. There are outdoor festivals that add so much to the ambiance of the city, such as the Skeleton Park Art’s Festival. Over this past summer, the Skeleton Park Arts Festival and Live Wire sponsored ‘Neighbours at Noon,’ a series of porch concerts featuring various local artists in various neighbourhoods. The music was amplified, but not loud. The concerts were a real boost to people’s spirit during the pandemic. The City itself sponsors a full program of outdoor amplified musical entertainment downtown and in the parks. Many well known musicians have had their start in Kingston (the Tragically Hip, the Mahones, Bedouin Soundclash, Georgette Fry, Emily Fennel, Sarah Harmer, and others) and I would venture to guess that some of them had the odd performance or practice on a porch or in a backyard.

This bylaw refers not only to big events, but also to everyday kind of activities that anyone might be involved in. Shout Sister! Choir held a couple of outdoor practices within the COVID-19 guidelines early in September in Lake Ontario Park at 4:00 on a Tuesday afternoon. Because they use a small amp to allow choir members to hear the background music, they were technically violating the bylaw. They are moving the next outdoor practice out of Kingston. 

I have been ‘jamming’ with five other senior musicians, socially distanced, in a backyard from 2:00 to 4:00 pm on a Thursday afternoon. One of the musicians who joined us used a small amp. I corresponded with Lisa Osanic, my City Councillor, who connected with the bylaw enforcement office. Their response was that we were indeed breaking the bylaw, but that we would be unlikely to receive a visit from Bylaw Enforcement unless there was a complaint. It would be up to the Bylaw Enforcement Officer to determine whether the noise was excessive or unusual – terms not used in the bylaw. This sends two messages to me. I can break the bylaw if I don’t get caught or nobody complains.  Also, the bylaw is enforced on an arbitrary basis, based on a complaint and the judgement of the bylaw officer.

I am by nature a law-abiding citizen. If I am informed of a law or bylaw, I will do my best to obey it. I would prefer to see a bylaw that defines a level of noise that is acceptable or unacceptable so that citizens can act with a clear conscience. A clearer definition also makes enforcement less arbitrary. There must be a way that City Hall can define a level of noise that is acceptable. Simply saying that any use of a speaker or amplifier outdoors is illegal is too sweeping and harsh at a time when music can not be enjoyed communally indoors.

Mary Lou Boudreau
Kingston resident

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