NORTH ANDOVER — At what point does noise become a nuisance?
That question has been raised in North Andover by neighbors of the Stevens Coolidge Estate, who feel that events with live music at the Trustees of Reservations property are too loud.
"It's been ongoing," said Laura Bates, Select Board chair. "So every time the trustees come before us for a liquor license, the neighbors have been submitting complaints that it's disruptive."
The Select Board, which doubles as the town's Licensing Board, has placed "restrictions on the entertainment license about where they should be facing the speakers," Bates said, and the Stevens Coolidge Estate has also "moved the events away from the abutters."
But Bates also said the board can't simply deny license requests on the basis of complaints.
"Within the entertainment license, it would have to be a public health concern for us to deny the license," she said.
So in June, the Select Board asked Brian LaGrasse, North Andover's director of public health, to help clarify the matter by taking some readings with a decibel meter.
"I've done a few of them in my day, dating back about 20 years at this point," LaGrasse said. "They don't come up very often. We don't have our own noise meter. We get one from DEP. It's calibrated. It's expensive. We borrow them, do our noise study and give it back."
According to state regulations, any source of noise that is 10 decibels higher than ambient, or background, noise is too loud.
Ambient noise levels are defined by measurements that are made when the offensive noise is absent. To determine if a violation has occurred, those numbers are averaged and compared to measurements taken when the louder sounds are audible.
LaGrasse's findings were submitted to the Select Board last Monday, July 12, at a meeting where Jeremy Dick, stewardship manager at Stevens Coolidge, was seeking one-day liquor licenses for upcoming events in August, September and October.
LaGrasse's report details measurements that he made at six different times of day on three days in June, and compared them to measurements he took from the same locations at two different points in the evening of Saturday, June 19, during a "Father's Day Bash" at the estate.
"A noise survey includes recording 100 decibel readings 10 seconds apart for approximately 17 minutes," LaGrasse wrote in his report.
The readings were taken on both the abutter's property and the Stevens Coolidge Estate, and averaged 59.6 decibels for ambient noise, and 60.5 decibels during the party.
"The noise readings did not at any time exceed the 10 dB threshold established by Massachusetts regulations," LaGrasse wrote. "The event readings were only 0.9 dB apart from the ambient averages."
The report, which stated that additional noise surveys may be conducted at future Stevens Coolidge events, said that most of the ambient noise on the property came from traffic and birds.
As pointed out by Richard Vaillancourt, a member of the Select Board, it also revealed that the ambient noise on a Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. was louder than the party on Saturday night.
"I can speak to that," said Dick, whose license requests were all approved by the board. "Wednesday we're closed, and we do the bulk of our mowing and string trimming."
While the noise report seems to have settled things from a regulatory perspective, Select Board member Janice Phillips suggested that the Stevens Coolidge Estate still needed to exercise some diplomacy.
"The last time we met, we specifically asked Kate (Bibeau, engagement site manager) to reach out to the neighbors whom we're repeatedly hearing from," she told Dick. "To my knowledge, that hasn't happened. It's two families that we hear from regularly, and I followed up with them, and when I did that, they had not heard from Kate."
When Bibeau was contacted a week after the meeting, she said that some efforts at reaching out to neighbors had been made.
"I think various staff members have met with abutters, both over the years but more frequently over the year with our expansion to the garden," she said.
Bibeau also said said that she had wanted to receive the results of Lagrasse's report before meeting with anyone.
"I was happy to see that the decibel level was well below where it needed to be," she said. "We obviously wanted to be within dictated limits. But also, to be good neighbors, if the curfew is nine, we end at eight. If the (acceptable) decibel level is at y, we have it at x, so not just the people coming but the people around the property also enjoy the area."