Portsmouth Up In Arms Over Noise Complaints

Aug 28, 2014

Joshua Cyr wearing a "Keep Portsmouth Loud" t-shirt in Portsmouth's Market Square.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

The streets of Portsmouth appear peaceful and idyllic this last week of summer. But just beneath the surface, all is not well in the Port City. On the Seacoast, recent responses to ongoing noise complaints have residents here in an uproar. 

Things got really crazy in Portsmouth on Tuesday. That’s when the Prescott Park Arts Festival canceled their end-of-the-season double feature film night after neighbors complained the noise would keep their kids up too late.

It was supposed to be 'Brave,' combined with 'Braveheart.'

People on Facebook immediately erupted in a fervor unified in defense of the Arts Festival. Two-hundred-fifty comments accumulated after the Festival announced the cancelation on its Facebook page.

Linda Mary Langley is one of the only people who posted comments sympathetic to the noise-sensitive neighbors.  “I feel like there can be some constraints and still have people come here and enjoy the movies," she says.

Langely was pretty much the only person advocating for compromise. She says some of the comments were kind of intimidating. “I made sure my doors were locked last night,” Langley says. “I don’t feel like someone's going to break into my house but it crossed my mind. There was just this general sense… almost like a mob mentality.”

Within hours, a new Facebook page called “Keep Portsmouth Loud” had over 2,000 likes. By the following morning, residents were wearing “Keep Portsmouth Loud” tee-shirts in downtown Portsmouth, and emailing letters to City Councilors.

Mayor Bob Lister says the city never told the Arts Festival to cancel the movie night. He says the festival should have run one movie and not the other.  Festival Director Ben Anderson, however, says the whole point of the double feature was… the double feature. 

These weren’t the first complaints he’d heard.

Earlier in the summer, a couple neighbors had complained to the police about the summer musical, Shrek.  Anderson worried city councilors were considering legal action.  He may have also had an inkling that canceling the Brave/Braveheart double feature could help him in the end.

“Now, I think, there’s less concern by seeing this organic ground swell of support that’s popped up by the residents themselves to say ‘this, among other things, is a really valuable part of who we are.’"

The noise complaints aren’t limited to the Arts Festival. Earlier this week, a local pub called the Portsmouth Gas Light Co. with nightly outdoor music announced it was firing a number of its regular acts, after City Attorney Bob Sullivan threatened to take the Gas Light to court. Sullivan was responding to twelve neighbors who had made numerous complaints.

“When there are enough people affected adversely by that noise, it becomes a public nuisance,” Sullivan says.  “A public nuisance gives the city a civil remedy to abate, or end the public nuisance.”

What quantifies “enough people” is at the discretion of the city.

The complaints at the Gas Light began with Ryan Abood.  He bought his apartment adjacent to the Gas Light in 2009, and says he’s been complaining about the sound for three years. Until now, nobody’s done anything. So – he bought a $100 noise pressure meter.  With it, Abood’s become something of a noise vigilante.

“When you lay in bed, and it's 93 decibels at the window on a Tuesday night at 10:30, that's actually louder than the television,” says Abood. The Gas Light has music outdoors until 11 p.m.,  seven nights a week.

Noise complaints are nothing new to Portsmouth – or really any city or town.  In Portsmouth, however, says Attorney Sullivan, the complaints have escalated over the last two years.  Everything from low flying helicopters, to the Seacoast Mavericks baseball games.

Sullivan says he thinks he knows why.  It’s not just because the city is more crowded.

“Portsmouth has become increasingly more affluent.  People move to the city and spend a lot of money to buy a house, and expect to enjoy living in that home without interference,” Sullivan says. “I believe the more money they pay for the house, the more they expect that.”

Buying a condo in Portsmouth today costs five times what it did in 1990, and almost twice what it cost a decade ago.

Bruce Pingree manages the Press Room in Portsmouth. He says there’s a reason residents feel defensive. It started "about twenty years ago," Pingree says. "There was a group of people living downtown that started going after all the clubs that had music.”

The city began limiting when and where you could make noise. According to Pingree, those regulations, along with other financial pressures – eventually led a lot of clubs and music venues to shutter.

Those kinds of changes are still in the city’s collective memory.

So, Pingree says, the fact that residents are mobilizing in an effort reminiscent of both Princess Merida and William Wallace– should not be so surprising.  

Keep Portsmouth Loud held a rally in Prescott Park Thursday night.  City Councilors will hold a public meeting to discuss noise issues this coming Tuesday.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate description of the decibel scale logarithm.