By Mellica McPherson-Ganda
For years the vexing deficiencies of the Noise Abatement Act of 1996 have been lamented, but to no avail, and as the Territory further grows into the ‘great little nation’ residents and visitors remain tormented by this pollution that continues to be ignored. A prime example is Road Town, last weekend, when outrageously loud music was still going on at 3am.
In a final attempt to address the issue that has caused great frustration, now former Complaints Commissioner, Mr. Elton Georges delivered on his promise to shed light on this belabored issue that up to his final days at the office attracted complaints.
At a press conference on 1 September 2014 Mr. Georges disclosed that complaints about the police dealing with noise matters were usually referred to his office.
The then Complaints Commissioner told reporters: “When people are being disturbed by noise their first recourse is to call the police, and if they don’t get relief then that becomes a complaint against the police, and there have been some of those.”
Months later, the Georges has prepared the report which was distributed to His Excellency Governor John Duncan, and Minister for Health and Social Development, Hon. Ronnie Skelton on 30 June.
Years of Bitter Complaints —Noise Still an issue
The perceived lawless approach to noise is undeniable, and perpetrators appear so seasoned to various noise making acts that they have grown nonchalant about creating disturbances at any place or time.
On many occasions, during sessions of the House of Assembly, Legislators have had to hold their thoughts, and give way to extreme traffic noise or even blaring music from vehicles.
In 2013, noise pollution complaints were heard from Legislators and residents alike. The matter of scooters with loud mufflers and riders with perceived disregard for the public or unconcern about noise pollution regulations were brought to the attention of Premier, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith and legislators twice in one week.
The first mention of the issue was in the form of a complaint made by a Third District resident during the Government on the Road Meeting that was held in Sea Cows Bay on 29 April 2013. The resident told the Premier and Ministers of Government that scooter riders deliberately go up and down the public roads disturbing persons living in the area with no care at all.
Similarly, the issue was raised in the House of Assembly on 30 April 2013 by At Large Representative, Hon. Archibald Christian who also noted that it would appear that the riders of the noisy scooters seem to have no regard for the public as they have disturbed the House of Assembly many times. Hon. Christian said: “We sit in this Honourable House trying to conduct the business of the people, and sometime we have to stop and pause to allow the motorbikes to pass…”
The At Large Representative stated that riders deliberately remove the original muffler from the bikes and replace it with another, which produces the loud noise that affects residents. “Most of those motorbikes are imported into the Territory, and they are imported with a silencer. Silencers are removed and modified and the bikes become noisy,” he explained.
The legislator ended his comment on the scooter issue by making an appeal to the riders and their parents: “I am not going to appeal tonight to the police to do anything about it… What I want to do tonight is to appeal to the owners and the riders of those bikes; the parents who have perhaps funded the purchase of some of those bikes for them to seriously reconsider if they want to live in a noisy society,” he said.
State of Anarchy: Law-breakers Reign
At a public meeting that was held by the Road Town Anti-Crime Group (RTACG) at the St. George’s Church Hall on 1 May 2012, RTACG member Eugenia O’Neal said she is one of the persons who face the noise issue.
“I have had some support from the police in that they have come, but the problem reoccurs. I got in touch with the proprietor who threatened to take me to court and sue me because I am harassing him; and preventing him from making money. What some people don’t seem to understand is that other countries deal with this; and you have legislation. If you are starting up a nightclub, you have to have sound proofing, you can’t just park up anywhere and put up speakers…,” she said.
Ms. O’Neal added: “Other countries have rules, they have zoning, they have rules about night clubs, how they are supposed to operate, and our country doesn’t. Basically we are left on our own. I am told now that I will have to take this person to court or we would find ourselves in court. I have no protection from the government; the police come and the next two weeks the problem happens again.”
Another resident explained that it took a police report, a petition; and a court order to make a bar in her area refrain from playing loud music after 12 am.
Other residents complained about noise polluters that systematically converge in the vicinity of Ceto’s Restaurant; while some reported screeching scooters and cars, and drivers blasting loud music through Road Town at any hour of day or night.
One business owner explained that during the course of three consecutive weekends they had to call the police to deal with noise from the area of Ceto’s. The resident expressed the frustration of having constantly to make the same complaint to the police while stating that she was sure it was going to continue.
Other residents concurred with the complaint about noise in the Ceto vicinity and pointed out that the noise was not coming from the establishment, but rather from an alleged group of people who converge next to the business with loud-speakers on top of their vehicles at full blast.
It was explained that these persons carry out their noisy actions on Fridays, Saturdays and even Sunday nights, but when the police turn up they lower their music.
In researching this situation, The Island Sun newspaper contacted the business owner that made the 2012 complaint about the noise coming from the Ceto area and we were informed that the situation continues. It was noted that a complaint was even made a month ago (May 2015).
Police Pressed to Act on the Issue of Noise Pollution
Over the years, the community turned to the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force (RVIPF) for the enforcement of the Noise Abatement Act. The reliance on the Police was clearly explained by Mr. Georges as he stated:
“The Act thus places enormous discretion and responsibility in the hands of the Commissioner of Police to decide what is “reasonable [noise level]in all the circumstances” and on the individual police officer called out on a complaint to decide a level of noise that “seems reasonable in all the circumstances” to her or him.”
In his report, Georges presented statistics of the number of calls the RVIPF received in relation to noise pollution. It was revealed that the RVIPF from 2010 to 2013 responded to some 103 calls dealing with excessively loud noise, an average of nearly 26 per year or two per month.
Of these, the largest single group (38, or 37%) was made up of complaints by residents about noise coming from bars/night clubs and not far behind was “neighbour noise”, noise coming from private quarters 33, (32%). Together, these two sources accounted for 69% of all calls. The next single largest source of noise complaints was motor vehicles.
Mr. Georges noted that in relation to the 103 responses, the reports paint a positive picture of “success”, with 70% of noise makers complying with requests to reduce the volume of noise. In a large number of cases – 22 – police intervention was inconclusive or by the time officers arrived the noise had ceased.
The former Complaints Commissioner concluded that the Police try to assist and appear to succeed more often than not in having noise reduced, at least temporarily, even if not to the levels that complainants would like.
Police and Legislators Contradict Each Other on the Subject
In defense against any perceived deficiencies on the matter, the Police have noted that the problem of noise control infringes on other perimeters. Commissioner of Police David Morris, in response to the comments and questions on the issue of noise pollution during the same meeting that was organized by the Road Town Anti-Crime Group in 2012, explained that the problem is a quality of life issue.
“We can certainly handle it, but what I am asking you is do you want us to handle it in a confrontational manner or would you rather deal with it as a community? The people who are making the noise or are facilitating the noise are from the community… So do you want the police to step in the middle between yourself or is it an opportunity for community groups to discuss and come up with some consensus way of dealing with these issues without having to take people to court for matters that could have actually be dealt with through mediation and discussion?”
“I’ll look into that, but one of the issues here in the Territory is noise, and at the end of the day it is up to the community, because yes, I’ll go along we will take this up and we will arrest people and we will take people to court, but there is also the other side of this, the enforcement… At the end of the day it is about living together in harmony and it is about businesses,” the Commissioner said.
On the other hand, At Large Representative, Hon. Christian said that the Police should act on the matter. During the other business section of the House of Assembly Sitting that was held on 10 May 2012 Hon. Christian said that it is unfortunate that residents feel that there is no recourse against noise pollution.
In fact, the Representative stated that the police have the power and responsibility to take action against noise makers and in the meantime legislators will do what they must to deal with the issue.
“What transpired from that meeting of the Acting Commissioner of Police basically the Acting Commissioner suggested that persons needed to consult with their elected representative to see how they could assist in alleviating this problem. To the best of my knowledge we have an Act called the Noise Abatement Act and that particular Act gives the police certain powers to ensure that residents are not affected by noise over and above normal conditions.”
Hon. Christian said that “the police have to do their work and we as legislators will do our work. The fact remains that the police have right now in their possession the powers to ensure that these activities are not taking place and persons are not left in positions where they feel as if they have no recourse.”
“I just want to state that I feel as if persons need to continue to advocate for police to do their job and we will continue to ensure that we provide legislation and protection for the residents and people of the Virgin Islands,” Hon. Christian said.
A Tolerant Approach
Meanwhile, Dr. Heskith Vanterpool of Eureka Medical and Bouganvillea Clinic admitted that there have been occasions where patients at the Bouganvillia facility have been affected by noise in forms of loud music, traffic and construction; but he said that he never reported his discomforts to the police. Dr. Vanterpool said that he decided to outfit his building to avoid the adverse sound transfer.
As it relates to construction noise he dismissed it as necessary, stating that the Territory is developing; and noise of construction is an essential part of the growth. He also took the time to apologize to his neighbours as he explained that he is also guilty of construction noise as he renovates his building.
In his report Mr. Georges recommended, among other things, that the Ministry of Health should – without delay – begin to develop a comprehensive noise policy in order to inform the drafting of a new Noise Control Act. This recommended policy should take into account the latest scientific information available on the health effects of noise and on the best ways of mitigating “necessary” noise or sound vibrations.
However, it was recommended that a balance ought to be reached in order to satisfy younger persons who associate loud noise with fun, the need of the elderly for peace, and the rights of children to a healthy environment conducive to sound mental development and learning and the need to maintain a reasonable level of economic activity. Furthermore, he advised that the new legislation should be drafted with a view to ease of enforcement.
As it relates to enforcement, Mr. Georges suggested that the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force ensures that all senior officers are trained in the relevant sections of the Noise Control and Abatement Act, 1996, as well as section 291 (c ) of the Criminal Code and are prepared to charge offenders when warranted.