Tim Hanlon
What do rock bands, leaf blowers, and drag races all have in common? In Portland, all are governed by the Noise Ordinance. For better or worse, noise levels have become one of the primary indicators for the quality of life in Portland--and a shaping force in city politics.

For the past few years, city hall has been restricting, decibel by decibel, noisemaking sources around town. Five years ago, Portland Meadows--perhaps the city's best outdoor music venue--was told by the city they could no longer host rock concerts. Three years ago, city council placed limitations on leaf blowers. And, more recently, clubs and music venues have been made acutely vulnerable to "Not in My Backyard" (NIMBY) neighbors' complaints. Under the city's new "time, place and manner" ordinance, operating hours at any bar or club can be restricted if neighbors have numerous complaints about noise levels. Several bars in southeast Portland, for example, have recently been asking patrons to enter and exit as quiet as mice, as a few new neighbors have been complaining to the city about late-night revelry. Those bars risk being shut down if the noise complaints continue.

In essence, the noise ordinance has become a powerful tool by which residents may speak softly and govern mightily. To look at a trend over the past few years, the city seems to be increasingly erring on the side of peace and quiet, over other considerations that also make Portland a vibrant place to live.

These concerns came to a head last Wednesday when the city's noise review board considered a request for Portland International Raceway (PIR) to host a national championship drag race this summer. Each year, the raceway is given four noise variances, allowing them to host four separate, extra loud events. That limitation dates back to 1989 when a handful of residents complained about roaring engines and squealing tires, forcing city council to adopt the restrictions.

But now, in perhaps the first real attempt to push back the ever-expanding jurisdiction of the noise ordinance, the raceway has requested a fifth variance, for an extra race in August. (Next month, city council will also consider whether to restrict hours of operation for garbage trucks--again because residents have complained about the racket they make.)

The raceway debate also brings attention to another trend in Portland politics--that is, a small number of vocal residents being allowed to unduly influence policy.

For example, roughly 40 residents from the increasingly gentrified Kenton neighborhood have banded together to oppose the extra race. This begs the question: Why does such a small group receive so much leverage at city hall? Raceway events can pull in 5,000-plus fans--should their interests be ignored? How should the city balance each group's gripes and interests? Should they only listen to those who bellyache the loudest?

The raceway is operated by the city's Parks and Rec. Bureau. Last year, the city received $300,000 in direct revenue from PIR. Also, to compensate for the raceway disturbances, PIR gives about $30,000 each year to North Portland neighborhoods for projects like tree planting and youth services. (That funding was waived for this year.) Furthermore, track managers estimate that successful events can bring in about $25,000 a day for the local economy, in terms of tourist dollars spent on beer, hotels, and restaurants.

"We need to find a balance," admits Paul van Orden, who as the noise-control officer is the city's point person for noise issues. With the raceway issue in particular, van Orden says, there needs to be more public dialogue to find a viable compromise between residents who want quiet and others who realize that noise is part of an urban environment. "This is an excellent opportunity for a visionary in (city) council to step forward and provide leadership," he added.

The Noise Board is scheduled to vote on the raceway's request for a noise variance in mid-March.