On the morning of Friday the 13th, the state House Committee on Economic Development and Business will deliver the punchline to a hilarious joke: HB 227, Relating To Noise Control.

“The Legislature finds that noise control is a serious issue for residents and businesses that must coexist closely in our state’s urban areas,” the joke about living downtown goes.

HB 227 was introduced by Rep. Karl Rhoads and cites empirical federal data: “The United States Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates certain noise sources, has observed that millions of people nationwide are negatively affected by noise and that studies show a direct link between excessive noise and health issues such as stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.”


The interior of Downbeat Lounge, a music venue on Hotel Street.


HB 227 throws it down: Not only does living in a city subject your ears to city sounds, but apparently millions of people across the nation are currently hard of hearing, procrastinating, or dead from stress, because of it.

And Chinatown is Hawaii’s ground zero.

Fishing for Bass

It’s not the symphony of buses, police sirens, cruise ships, drunk tourists, car alarms, garbage trucks, people yelling obscenities, and helicopters that plague downtown residents — the real culprits, imply co-authors Rhoads, Tom Brower and Scott Saiki, are evil nightclubs, especially those that play Meghan Trainor songs.

“An often overlooked source of noise pollution is lower frequency sound commonly thought of as ‘bass,’” they explain to their target audience: anyone who has never heard of music.

Bass, they claim, is bad at certain levels because it “permeates walls and windows and causes … harmful vibrations.”

If approved, starting July 1 this year, the bill would require businesses in Hawaii counties with populations greater than 700,000 (a group consisting only of Honolulu) to keep the maximum decibel sound level below 60 dBC from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and no higher than 50 dBC from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Those who frequent Chinatown submitted a majority of the testimony: musicians, patrons, bar staff and other fans of community and common sense, calling the bill an attack on creativity, freedom of speech and expression.

HB 227’s target are dBCs, or high and low frequency sound levels, rather than the middle range frequencies, or dBAs. Most national organizations that study health effects related to noise, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, measure dBA frequencies, because those sounds actually have the potential to damage our ears. High and low sound levels, the dBCs, or bass — are usually filtered and are less likely to hurt us.

Monitoring a club’s dBC level is bad science, said John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University.

“If you read HB 227, it starts out with this presumption that noise hurts hearing and that bass is harmful. But there’s no evidence that these noise levels they’re establishing are about hearing,” Hart told me. “You’re not talking about a health issue, or a safety issue. No one’s being harmed. It’s a quality of life issue.”

HB 227 wants nothing higher than 50 dBCs after 10 p.m., as if anything higher is potentially damaging.

Adding a tag to this legislative joke, the law would be enforced by night life’s best frenemy, the Liquor Commission, which would monitor it using these simple guidelines: “The maximum dBC sound level shall not be louder than three decibels above the ambient noise level for A) any two minute segment within a measurement taken for a duration of at least ten minutes; or B) any time segment, within a measurement taken for more than ten minutes, that is at least twenty per cent as long as the total duration of the measurement.”

Anytime a complaint is made, a volume cop from the Liquor Commission would be dispatched to measure the levels at the accused club, and if found in violation, the commission could revoke, suspend, or withhold the club’s license.

“Sshhhhhhhhhhh” — Rep. Rhoads

“It’s not constant; it’ll be weeks or months where I don’t get any complaints,” Rhoades, who represents Kalihi, Palama, Iwilei, and Chinatown, said on the phone (at a safe 60 dB). “I’ll ask people: ‘No, it’s been fine.’ But every once in a while there’s this outburst of noise.”

Those who frequent Chinatown submitted a majority of the testimony: musicians, patrons, bar staff and other fans of community and common sense, calling the bill an attack on creativity, freedom of speech and expression.

Serena Hashimoto, co-owner of Downbeat Diner and Lounge on Hotel Street and Proof Public House on Fort Street (music venues and restaurants), testified in opposition, saying, “All of Honolulu benefits from the nightlife in Chinatown. Over an [sic] over again, we, the business owners and progressive residents of the area, are forced to demonstrate that we are overly compliant with all regulations. We all understand that there is a very small, anti-nightlife contingent who keeps this issue alive and is perpetually diverting our City resources to be utilized to drive down the quality of life in the area … What we would like to do is invest our energy on issues we all agree are problems, like homelessness and drug dealing. Let us flourish and we will, through our success, create a better neighborhood.”

Rep. Karl Rhoads listens

Rep. Karl Rhoads wants it quiet.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Steve Lohse, the chair of the Chinatown Gateway Plaza Association, supports the bill. “An unlivable late-night noise district with neither its host community nor up-scale [sic] visitors for customers is NOT a sustainable or responsible economic model for Chinatown!” he wrote, the emphasis his.

The Liquor Commission also supports the bill’s intent, but has a few understandable stipulations: “As a liquor regulatory agency,” Administrator Franklin Pacarro, Jr. testified (his emphasis), the commission “simply lacks the credentialed expertise in acoustic science to establish low frequency noise levels and limits that are reasonable, defensible, and supported by science;” that measuring the sound levels “may not be feasible in practice;” and that, on 22 sound level readings taken 200 feet above the downtown and Chinatown streets, the Commission found that the ambient city noise averaged 59.4 dB.

When representatives of the commission measured sound levels from three meters away, as would be required by the bill, their faces melted off.

For Rhoads’ part, he says the proposed bill is “self-inflicted … I’ve got nothing against arts and culture. But if your business model requires that you keep people up at night, maybe a different neighborhood would be better.”

In other words, if HB 227 is approved and you’re a music venue that wants to stay open for business, all you have to do is leave the island.

I can’t decide if the bill-joke is an actual attempt to address concerns or if it’s merely introduced to fail, something Rhoads can take back to the Chinatown vocal minority he represents and whisper gently, so as not to offend, “Sorry. I tried.”

On the other hand, if the bill is a genuine shot at regulating a non-issue, it is incomprehensible that anyone would want to enforce a law that would essentially take Chinatown back to the days before Rhoads was elected, when the arts district was silent and the neighborhood’s decibels were instead made from prostitution cat-calls and drifters screaming from dementia.

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