On Monday, July 8, the Council unanimously adopted an ordinance giving the Seattle Police Department authority to cite amplified sound produced by watercraft under our noise ordinance. The ordinance was prompted by a history of complaints by neighbors at Andrews Bay, the small bay between the Seward Park peninsula and the shore of Lake Washington, about ‘party boats’ that anchor in the bay for a large portion of the summer.

Andrews Bay in 1926
(courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)

This ordinance is a good example of the process required to address a problem of relatively modest scope. When writing laws every word is subject to interpretation, so the Council must be very precise in specifying exactly what we are limiting and how, and what legal authority we have for granting it, since all of our powers are based on State law.

In this case, the problem was pretty straightforward. Every summer residents call the Seattle Police Department to report excessive noise from watercraft, but the noise provisions of the Seattle Municipal Code only addressed the operation of watercraft and engine noise, not noise from audio equipment intended to amplify music and sound. There was no effective way for Seattle Police Harbor Patrol to regulate noise from audio equipment on watercraft.

The problem was exacerbated this year because the City of Kirkland, which faced a similar situation, adopted a new noise ordinance, and it appears that some ‘party boats’ relocated to Andrews Bay from Kirkland as a result.

The answer is pretty straightforward. Set a standard that “It is unlawful for any person to negligently cause, make or allow to be made from audio equipment under such person’s control or ownership sound from a watercraft that can be clearly heard by a person of normal hearing at a distance of three hundred (300) feet or more from the watercraft itself.”

This does not mean, of course, that the Police will be patrolling for people throwing parties using amplified sound. It does mean that if there is a complaint, the Police can go to the location, determine if there is clearly audible noise (a legal standard already in the code) that can be heard within this 300 foot distance, and will then be able to go to the boat and tell them to turn down the music. If they don’t do so, they can get a ticket.

It seems very simple. But as we moved this ordinance through the Council, we ran into two issues that had to be addressed. First, we heard from folks like Argosy and the Christmas Ship that they were worried that this could be applied to them. Not the intention, so we added clauses exempting “Sounds created by authorized watercraft participating in city sanctioned or permitted events” and “Sounds created by vocal narration during a sightseeing tour”. Then we had a question raised as to whether this qualified as land use legislation, which would mean that we had to do an evaluation under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to determine whether ther

e would be any adverse environmental impacts. An easy process for something as simple as this, where the outcome would pretty clearly be a determination that there are no impacts. However, even such an evaluation takes time, requires public notice, and allows for an appeal process, which could add months of delay.

The initial draft was located in a section of the code where there was some uncertainty as to whether a SEPA analysis would be required. Fortunately, this was remedied by locating the code provision in a section of the code that is specifically exempt from SEPA analysis under State law.

So, the law was passed, and will go into effect later this summer. And residents will sleep better, and parties will have to end earlier or be a bit more subdued. And that’s the kind of issue that doesn’t generate front page newspaper coverage, but makes a modest difference in people’s lives.