Church is Denied Waiver of Noise Restriction
St. John Neumann's Bells Disturbed Some Residents
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006; B02
Fairfax County officials have issued a ringing non-endorsement of the bells at St. John Neumann's in Reston, ruling that they must toll within the limits of the county's noise ordinance or not at all.
The Board of Supervisors asked the zoning staff this year to see whether the law could be amended to accommodate the church, whose bells ring at a volume slightly higher than the 55-decibel maximum permitted in residential areas.
But James P. Zook, director of Fairfax's Department of Planning and Zoning, recently told the board in a memo that creating an exception for church bells could be constitutionally problematic, leaving the county open to court challenge.
"Localities cannot enact different standards for noise emanating from a place of worship," Zook said. If Fairfax did that, he said, the new rules would have to apply to "all other types of bells, chimes or carillons." Zook noted, however, that at least two other cities, Morgantown, W.Va., and Seattle, did make exceptions for church bells.
St. John's, a Catholic church in south Reston, installed a $50,000 electronic bell system in 2004 as part of a major expansion. When the bells began ringing, in three-minute bursts -- three times on weekdays, once on Saturdays and before each of five Sunday Masses, starting at 7:30 a.m. -- neighbors complained.
The county discovered that the bells registered at an average of 75 decibels (roughly equivalent to a vacuum cleaner at close range), which is considerably above the 55-decibel limit in residential areas.
The church reduced the power flowing to the three bells, which brought the reading down to 60 decibels, softer (about the sound of an air conditioner at 50 feet) but still above the limit.
The dispute has kept the bells silent for 23 months.
"It's frustrating, because the sound is so much a part of our tradition," said the Rev. Thomas Murphy, the church's pastor. "Anybody who has grown up in a city atmosphere is familiar with the ringing of bells."
These people complaining need to get a life. They are probably old people who have nothing better to do than sit by their window and yell at people. In contrast: If this was a mosque calling muslims to prayer you better believe nobody would complain, or if they did the ACLU would be all over that.
Read the full story here.