Thanks to local comic Joe Pillitteri, Niagara-on-the-Lake has attracted the attention of national media for its draft noise bylaw that bans hooting and singing after 9 p.m.
He has also drawn attention to the “ridiculous” 55-decibel level of noise as the limit proposed in the bylaw, which is below the sound of normal conversation.
The attention he attracted has convinced town councillors, who weren’t expected to discuss the proposed changes until their Aug. 24 meeting, to drop any thought of adopting the changes, and concentrate on enforcement instead.
The recommendations in the proposed bylaw included limiting the noise level at 50 decibels between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and 55 decibels between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
The media attention has made NOTL a “laughingstock,” said Coun. Wendy Cheropita, agreeing that the proposed changes should be dropped.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero suggested staff should not pursue the draft bylaw, and instead, councillors should hold a workshop to talk about the existing bylaw and deal with the challenges of enforcing it. Her motion was approved unanimously.
One of the most popular postings on social media in recent days was a satirical article from The Beaverton, a national publication, with a headline that shouted “Police in Niagara-on-the-Lake investigate drive-by hooting.”
But Pillitteri, who has been using humour to highlight the issue in several media interviews, including CTV, Global TV, and a local radio station, says the draft bylaw was not a laughing matter — it would have had serious repercussions during a time when local businesses are already suffering.
While revising the Town’s noise bylaw has been an ongoing council discussion, and on the radar of stakeholders such as the wineries, breweries and restaurants, “I don’t think anyone thought it would get to this stage,” he says. “It’s been a good wakeup call — if you don’t get involved, decisions will be made for you that will impact our businesses and our quality of life.”
“We enjoy family gatherings,” he adds. “When my dad tells his stories, he’s talking at 75 decibels. I want to be able to hear his stories.”
This bylaw, if approved, would have impacted everyone, businesses and residents. “It’s important we don’t turn a blind eye to that,” he said.
Pillitteri was at Chateau des Charmes Winery last Friday afternoon, where he was partnering with the Canadian classical Quartetto Gelato for Music Niagara’s Music and Laughter series. The performance was being filmed by Niagara College for the festival’s At Home virtual concerts.
As he spoke to The Local from the York Road winery, the sound of musicians could be heard playing in the background.
It’s easy to download an app that measures sound levels, he says, and at the edge of the tent under which the musicians were playing, it was 68 decibels. “The music couldn’t be any more beautiful, flowing out through the vineyard of Chateau des Charmes on a summer afternoon. But without an exemption from the Town, this would be in violation of the proposed bylaw,” says Pillitteri.
He compares the situation in town to the movie Footloose, an American musical drama that chronicles a battle in a small town between politicians who want to ban dancing, and locals who are fighting the prohibition.
“You watch it and think, who would do that in real life? I can’t think of a better comparison than what this bylaw would do to NOTL, the way it’s proposed.”
Entering “the political process” is new for the owner of Lakeview Equipment, who does stand-up comic locally, primarily to help raise funds for causes he supports.
“Ultimately, and I guess a little selfishly, I had to get involved. I knew it would impact funding for things that are important,” he says.
Some of the businesses that would have been the most affected are also the most philanthropic, raising money for charitable organizations, including The Terry Fox Foundation, the NOTL Community Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society, NOTL Minor Sports, Red Roof Retreat, Kidsport Niagara, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Niagara Rotary Club, and various other community initiatives, he says.
“How much money can we raise if we can’t have these events?”
Pillitteri has been a regular at the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre, performing to raise money for The Terry Fox Foundation, but that would have come to an end under the proposed bylaw, without a special permit.
The same would hold true for other popular events, such as the Virgil Stampede. The Virgil Business Association, organizers of the event, has given more than $1.2 million to the community through its annual fundraiser.
“If you’re yelling happy birthday to your grandmother in your backyard after 9 p.m., you’ve broken the proposed bylaw and could draw a $350 fine,” says Pillitteri.
It would have restricted how residents celebrate special occasions with family and friends, and would limit recreational and cultural arts activities, eliminate outdoor concerts and live music on patios, and diminish the quality of community events, he says.
An online petition Pillitteri set up had drawn almost 9,000 signatures by Monday night’s discussion at council’s planning meeting, and the number was continuing to climb toward his goal of 10,000.
The petition has been signed by Steven Page of
Barenaked Ladies, who noted “as a musician, audience member and wine lover, outdoor concerts in NOTL, specifically at Jackson-Triggs have been an important part of my life.” Killing performances such as these “would be a huge and destructive blow to both the arts and wine communities in Canada,” Page says.
Also voicing his concern and signing the petition was singer Alan Doyle, who has performed at the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre. “Let’s save this most amazing music venue,” he says. “The music industry is facing a crisis like never before. We need all the help and venues we can get.”
Pillitteri was hoping his online petition would convince councillors that the changes to the bylaw were a bad idea, and it worked.
Referencing the petition and the resulting attention from the public, Disero said the proposed changes to the bylaw were making a lot of people angry. “We need to stop, take a pause and start again, but with this particular draft bylaw, no matter what you do now to try and fix it, people will continue to be angry with it.”
The recent proposed revisions came about as a result of a September, 2019, council directive to town staff to review noise policies and gather input from the public to see where improvements could be made to the current bylaw. It had been approved in 2012, but not without lengthy debate amongst councillors and the public at that time. Ongoing concerns have been from residents living close to venues that hold permitted special events, and from neighbours of short-term rentals, where loud parties can be an issue.
At the request of council, town staff reviewed noise as it relates to special events and outdoor locations, and how it could be better controlled. They were also tasked with investigating the possibility of including a decibel level, which is missing in the current bylaw, leading to the recommendation of limits of 50 and 55 decibels.
At a virtual open house in July, winery representatives made it clear that noise bylaw amendments under consideration could be the death of special events so desperately needed for the continued success of their industry.
About 25 people signed up to speak to the suggested revisions, of the shortcomings of the revisions, including residents, Tim Jennings, CEO of the Shaw Festival, and Andrea Kaiser, chair of The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, who was instrumental as a councillor in getting the original bylaw approved.
She and others speaking last month pointed out some inconsistencies in the timelines, such as the cut-off for playing musical instruments at 10 p.m., with amplified music allowed until 11 p.m.
Also yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling and singing are permitted only until 9 p.m.
Another concern Kaiser and others mentioned was the suggested ban on amplified music at 55 decibels, which would “effectively prevent amplified music on winery properties for permitted on-site special events.”
Del Rollo, representing Arterra Wines Canada, which includes Jackson-Triggs Estate Winery and Inniskillin Winery, spoke of “robust tourism strategies” that include events on patios featuring local chefs and musicians, and the “ultimate experience” of live music under the stars in the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre, while sipping wine with vineyards as a backdrop.
“The challenge is, like with most things in life, we can’t make everyone happy. We understand this and we try to make revisions each year to solve these problems.”
The revised draft bylaw “would put an end to our amphitheater, and would put an end to outdoor events in general,” he said.
Municipal lawyer Tom Richardson spoke of inconsistent and conflicting amendments, which would make it impossible for the public to understand noise limitations, and suggested the Town may wish to create “a committee of concerned citizens reflecting the various communities in town you’re hearing from tonight.”
Tim Jennings, executive director and CEO of the Shaw Festival, said the draft noise bylaw is especially problematic for those in the arts and cultural professions, with a reduced time allowed for music, and singing added to noises such as shouting and hooting. He also spoke to the issue of noise being limited to 55 decibels in the proposed legislation.
“The difficulty with decibel readings, and we do a lot of them in my world, is a normal household air conditioner at 100 feet is louder than a 60 decibel reading. I’m speaking at about 60 decibels. At 70 decibels, we’re not yet at the noise of a TV in the living room.”
The 11 p.m. cut-off “is working extremely well,” Jennings said.
“The enforcement of the bylaw is the real issue.”
Residents spoke of the need for better enforcement and higher penalties. There are no bylaw officers available in the evening, when noise is a problem. Police say they have more important issues to attend, and while fines similar to a speeding ticket can be handed out to anyone contravening the existing bylaw, Rolf Wiens, the town’s bylaw official, admitted, “I don’t know if they have ever been issued.”
Several councillors spoke of the good information that came out of the open house, which shouldn’t be lost just because the draft bylaw is abandoned. Coun. Clare Cameron elicited a guarantee from interim CAO Sheldon Randall that the comments from the open house will be preserved in a report for council, ready for the time when the current bylaw is discussed.
Another point they made, agreeing with several of the comments from the public, including Pillitteri, is the need for better enforcement of the existing bylaw.
“We had meetings, we listened, and right from the start everyone complained of lack of enforcement,” said Coun. Erwin Wiens, adding if enforcement isn’t part of future discussions, the problem will never be solved.