Toronto’s noise bylaw gets a rethink

Concerned residents and representatives from music communities put aside their tensions and met up to find a solution that works for everyone


The city’s noise bylaw is under review, and now the public has been invited to weigh in. 

This bylaw has been instrumental in the recent venue crisis – one of the greatest points of friction between residents and our city’s music scene. Some argue that a growing city will inevitably be loud, while others believe that progress shouldn’t come with accepting excessive noise as a default. The shifting and often conflicting priorities are a major part of why it’s been under review now for the better part of four years. 

In the last two weeks, Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) oversaw a series of public consultations. The bylaw has been a source of discord among Toronto residents and venue owners, which meant these consultations could have gotten very heated. 

Each consultation focused on a separate item of the bylaw and its proposals. We focused in on two of them – the meetings on Amplified Sound and General Prohibition – to find out how the bylaw review is progressing and how close we might be to solutions.

The General Prohibition states that no one shall make any noise “which is likely to disturb the quiet… enjoyment, comfort or convenience of the inhabitants of the city.” Meanwhile the Amplified Sound section currently says “no person shall emit or cause or permit the emission of sound resulting from the operation of any electronic device… into any street or public place,” effective between 11 pm and 7 am on residential streets. 

Surprisingly, the meetings were not the spicy shouting matches they were anticipated to be. That’s due in large part to the third party the city hired to facilitate discussions. Public consultation professionals Swerhun Facilitation split each session up into smaller working groups that could talk through their issues and hash out tangible solutions.

They also came armed with information. Prior to the in-person consultations, there was another engagement that took place online, operated by Ipsos. 

Now that these consultations are complete, the facilitators will distill the information into a report for city staff, who will then factor that into their report on the bylaw, which will be delivered to council in April. Residents still have until February 28 to weigh in on the bylaw via email at mlsfeedback@toronto.ca. 

Some themes emerged throughout the discussions that tell us about the tensions, feelings and ideas that will shape the amended bylaw. 

The status quo isn’t working for anyone

Both residents and members of the music industry turned out in big numbers to the Amplified Sound consultation, including representatives from Blank Canvas art collective, Burdock, the Garrison, the Baby G and Array Space, overflowing the room at the Scadding Court community centre. Facilitators said the room was made up of half and half of each interest group, all looking to articulate the ways the bylaw isn’t currently acting in their best interest.

Be more specific

The 2018 Ipsos survey made it clear that there’s a great amount of confusion around what bylaws exist, what they mean and how they’re enforced – a feeling that was reinforced at the public consultations. 

In that regard, though the Amplified Sound session was a divided group of many interests, it felt as though the room came together around the city’s third option for the bylaw. That option not only set time constraints on when noise could occur (8 am to 11 pm), it laid those constraints out in clear, measurable limits of decibels, in both dB(A) (loudness) and dB(C) (bass) levels. Though not all agreed on the details, the room greatly favoured the specificity and clarity. 

Who enforces the bylaw?

There are currently only 235 officers on staff to enforce all 30 of the city’s bylaws. That number accounts for the disparity between when a noise complaint is made versus when it’s actually investigated (officers respond usually within five days). Noise complaints used to be handled by the police, but both MLS and Toronto Police Services agreed that siccing the police on your neighbour over noise only makes the issue worse. 

The obvious solution would be to invest more in bylaw officers, which would be justified in creating a more music-friendly and supportive city, in line with our “Music City” intentions. 

Residents in both the Amplified Sound and General Prohibition sessions offered other suggestions that would alleviate some of the pressure on the department. For outdoor concerts, individual promoters should have their own on-staff person in charge of measuring and logging dB(A) and dB(C) levels. 

Another proposal is to establish a mediation system between complainants and those they’re complaining against. The city has long sought a dispute-resolution mechanism for noise complaints, and has been doing it informally for years (think Afrofest, which the city reduced and then restored in the summer of 2016). It’s currently in the works as a pilot project.

Get everyone on the same page

Though dividing consultations up by bylaw subsections was a successful way to focus the conversation, it also meant that unless they came to every meeting, residents weren’t getting a full sense of all the proposed changes and how they influenced one another. This flaw in the process was most clear during the final meeting around the General Prohibition section. 

Currently, General Prohibition technically supersedes all other subsections of the bylaw like a kind of catch-all: no noise, ever.

That power means that even if a venue is legally operating within the limitations set by the Amplified Sound subsection, a neighbour can still call and complain, which is what happened to the soon-to-close Faith/Void recently after new neighbours moved in. 

However with the other sections of the bylaw becoming more straightforward and well-defined, the need for a catch-all like General Prohibition decreases significantly, and getting rid of it altogether is a position that MLS supports. 

But in the meeting, that notion was a hard sell for residents who weren’t familiar with the other discussions that took place throughout the two weeks, with one group saying they couldn’t support an all-out removal of the General Prohibition without also knowing what the other bylaws would look like first. 

But with these collaborations approaching middle ground, the city is closer than ever to arriving at a noise bylaw that works for everyone.

@nowtoronto | @therewasnosound

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