March 4, 2010

Too many questions around noise ordinance

— The City Council did the right thing Wednesday in voting down a proposed ordinance that would have clamped down on loud motorcycles.

Not because excessive noise isn't a problem -- it is. But this measure left too many questions unanswered to get onto the city's law books.

A citizen's group made a strong argument that motorcycles that have been modified to make a jet engine-like roar were a threat to the peace and quiet of neighborhoods. They identified a ban on after-market tail pipes as a way to cut down on excessive noise in the city. They got the endorsement of the public safety committee for the idea and looked as if they were headed to approval from the full council, making Portland the only municipality in the state to go after loud motorcycles this way.

But they failed make a =case that the ordinance would do what it was intended to do, leaving the council no choice but to defeat the measure. Proponents should not give up, but try again.

The mechanism that the ordinance's backers hoped to use was a sticker that is put on new motorcycle exhaust systems, certifying approval by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Bikes that have been modified to make a lot of noise would lack a sticker.

But so would a lot of other motorcycles with after-market exhaust system, and most of them do not make excessive noise.

The council was left with the question of whether they should be regulating noise or stickers, since one was not necessarily related to the other. The fact that no one from the police department was in attendance at Wednesday's meeting left councilors with too many questions about the enforceability of the measure to pass it.

The fact that the council rejected the ordinance doesn't mean that all of its opponents were right, however.

It was not ''a little like Big Brother'' unfairly singling out one group of people, as one councilor suggested. And it was not a bad idea to protect residents from excessive noise just because passing the first ordinance of its kind in the state would be bad for business. Illegally modified motorcycles and excessive noise can be bad for business as well.

But the questions about the proposed ordinance's effectiveness and enforceability made it the wrong move for Portland at this time.

As proponents look deeper into the issue, they may find that the City Council is the wrong arena to resolve this.

While motorcycle inspections are required by state law, some riders don't comply. That presumably includes the ones who have modified their machines to make noise, who would fail an inspection if they had one.

A police officer can ask to see proof of an inspection and issue a ticket if the rider cannot produce one. But unlike car owners, motorcycle owners are not required to display proof of inspection.

An inspection sticker would give police a quick and easy way to identify the bikers who have not complied with the law and ticket just the violators. That would require a change in state law, and possibly an increase in the motorcycle inspection fee to cover the cost of a sticker.

But that would at least create a system that is fair to law-abiding motorcyclists and also to the people who deserve to enjoy their homes without being assaulted by excessive and illegal noise.

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