First there was The Great Gas Leaf Blower Debate. You probably remember the lawn signs — “Quiet Clean Healthy” vs. “Lexington Citizens for Choice.” In fall of 2021, Town Meeting voted to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers, which are more polluting than a pickup truck and as loud as a plane taking off. Not everyone was happy with the decision. A rare referendum was called, and in March of 2022, residents got to weigh in. The debate pitted client against landscaper and neighbor against neighbor. In the end, voters decided to uphold the ban. It was a long and contentious process, and when it was over, four members of the town’s Noise Advisory Committee, which first recommended the ban, resigned.
Then there was the ongoing construction at 69 Pleasant Street. The property was clear cut and a ledge made of mostly granite and silica was basically flattened in order to make way for a new development of luxury homes expected to list for about $3 to 4 million each. Neighbors endured more than five months of twice-daily blasts that many described as feeling like an earthquake. Some measured noise levels of more than 100 decibels during the blasts, occasionally reaching closer to 125.
Noise that loud is more than just a nuisance — it can impair hearing, disturb sleep, cause anxiety, and even increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks.
“Over the past several years, since the Covid pandemic, a lot of residents have been home during the day. They are around when there is landscaping noise. They are around when there is construction,” explained Select Board member Joe Pato. The town got so many complaints they decided they had better do something before the next construction season.
The problems with 69 Pleasant Street made it clear that the town’s noise bylaw was confusing and hard to enforce. “A plain English reading of the language led you to think one thing, but the construction industry’s reading of the language was different,” Pato said. When neighbors complained about loud noise before 9:00 am, they were informed that “rock breaking” isn’t permitted until 9:00 am, but “rock crushing” can begin at 7:00 am.
A working group was formed, led by Town Manager Jim Malloy, with the goal of rewriting the bylaw to be more clear and enforceable. The hope was that an article to amend the bylaw could be raised in the Special Town Meeting coming up this Nov. 7.
The group proposed a number of changes, including setting noise limits of 80 dBA in residential areas and 85 dBA in all other zones. Previously, the limit was noise levels “that would disturb a reasonably prudent person.” (The original bylaw does mention 85 dBA as the goal for noise mitigation plans, and defines noise pollution as noise levels 10 dBA or more above the ambient noise). Other changes include clear definitions of blast hole drilling, percussive breaking, and rock breaking, and a list of legal holidays when blasting and rock breaking are not permitted (these were all points of contention in disputes over 69 Pleasant). Penalties for violating the bylaw were set at $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second, and $300 for the third and subsequent violations – the highest allowed under Massachusetts law.
The changes were discussed at a public forum on Sept. 26, and the general consensus among the members of the public who spoke was that they did not go far enough. One speaker pointed out that the EPA set the safe level at a maximum of 70 dBA. Others complained that the fines would be negligible to developers building $3 million houses. One person, who lived near 69 Pleasant with a toddler who still needed naps, said he could accept the occasional loud noise, but suggested a limit on the duration — 5 months of almost daily blasting seemed to him to be more than anyone should have to bear.
“Noise is a very emotional topic,” explained Barbara Katzenberg, a Town Meeting member who lives near 69 Pleasant and has followed the debate over the bylaw closely. “These are very difficult bylaws to write.”
Katzenberg said that the working group had presented something they believed was a good try. But in her opinion, they hadn’t quite done all their homework. “It didn’t have any noise experts, it didn’t have any health experts,” she said. The working group looked at maximum decibel levels in noise bylaws from three local towns – Cambridge, Boston and Belmont — to arrive at the 80 dBA limit in their proposal. “In order to be perceived as fair by the community, you need to have a basis for all the criteria in your bylaw, not just one or two towns that you pick and choose,” Katzenberg said. “Do the full analysis. Look to public health literature.”
Another problem she noted was that there was still no Noise Advisory Committee, after members had resigned in the wake of the gas leaf blower debate. This meant that the new proposal was developed mostly by town staff, not elected officials or members of the community.
At the end of the public forum, Malloy announced a follow-up forum on October 11. But that meeting never happened. The warrant listing articles to be discussed at the upcoming Special Town Meeting arrived in everyone’s mailbox with no mention of the noise bylaw. The process appears to have stalled.
“[The Select Board] decided it needed more work before it went to town meeting,” Pato explained. “We wanted to reconstitute the noise advisory committee to investigate what kind of limits should exist where.” The board is currently looking for applicants for the committee. Given the timing, they are unlikely to have a new proposal ready for the main annual Town Meeting in the spring.
“Nothing is going to happen quickly,” Pato said. “It will take some time to draft an appropriate change to the bylaw.”
But it will happen eventually, he says. “We will be having public discussions again as a new proposal is developed,” Pato said. “This issue isn’t going to go away.”