Screaming motorcycle engines. Cars giving off what sounds like shotgun blasts.
A lot of people in East Lansing are tired of it – tired enough that, while the item never seems to officially show up on City Council agendas, it’s become a topic of discussion at almost every meeting.
Glencairn neighborhood resident Jim Worth called into the May 25 meeting of Council to decry the spurts of vehicle noise along West Grand River Ave. as “unbearably ridiculous.”
He noted that cars have been modified with kits “so that they’re super loud,” with the vehicles designed to “crackle and pop when they drive” such that “you can hear them for miles.”
Chesterfield Hills neighborhood resident Diane Wing, who lives across Grand River Ave. from Worth, called in to the June 8 meeting of Council to back up his complaints. She said the cars modified with “shotgun mufflers” and “machine gun mufflers” make it sound like there is actual gunfire.
Wing said that officers from the East Lansing Police Department are not helping so far as she can see. She added that, since the speed limit on West Grand River Ave. was changed from 25 mph to 35 mph, she no longer sees any police enforcement along that corridor.
Wing told Council that she has lived in her house for over 20 years and now finds herself having to wear earplugs just to be outside in her own garden.
Mayor Aaron Stephens told both Worth and Wing that City Council and the staff understand that residents are suffering from these vehicle-related noise problems in many parts of East Lansing.
Indeed, Council member Dana Watson has noted the frustrating noise outside her own home on Hagadorn Rd. The motorcycles roaring by Watson’s house are sometimes audible on Watson’s live feed during online Council meetings, and when they roar by, Watson occasionally points out the din to her fellow Council members.
But Council and City staff have, so far, not been able to offer a solution.
Stephens did note at the May 25 meeting that one motivation for closing a section of Albert Ave. between Abbot Road and M.A.C. Ave. was to stop the loud motorcycles from cutting through there.
City staff member Adam Cummins, who led the project to close that part of Albert Ave., wrote in a memo on May 25 that one of the goals was to “reduce noise pollution generated from motorcycles and vehicles.”
Back in September of 2020, the City also got rid of a spot used for motorcycle parking near the clock tower in the Ann Street Plaza, to try to shoo-away motorcyclists, as motorcycle-noise complaints came in from residents of Newman Lofts and the City Center condos above C.V.S.
Asked by Stephens to weigh in, City Manager George Lahanas concurred with frustrations but also put forward one different perspective on motorcycle noise at the May 25 meeting.
Lahanas told Council, “People who ride the motorcycles say that that gives them a margin of safety because it increases their ‘visibility,’ and I know that’s not a very satisfying answer, but if it’s not factory-changed and it’s factory-original equipment, I don’t believe they can actually cite them for a loud motorcycle.”
Stephens then told Worth that Council was glad to solve the problem along Albert Ave. with a road closure – “from a policy standpoint, it’s also helpful for us to actually be able to cut off that road that we see a lot of that activity coming in” – and he said they would continue to “monitor” other areas.
Worth responded, “That’s great for Albert, but I mean, that’s not going to do anything for Grand River.” He went on to describe the vehicles as reaching “jet airplane decibel-level noise.”
Responding to complaints from people like Worth and Wing, at the June 8 meeting, East Lansing Police Chief Kim Johnson said that his officers had tried showing up in the West Grand River Ave. area to help, only to be asked by one resident to leave because that resident didn’t want armed police hanging out in the neighborhood.
Johnson said police were doing their best, but it is clear that with this issue, as with many others, ELPD now finds itself caught between people who want enforcement against disturbances of the peace by things like loud parties, fireworks, and noisy motorcycles, and people who want the police to back off of enforcement of non-violent offenses.
There have definitely been mixed messages on policing issues like this, with Council taking actions such as revising the disorderly conduct code to reduce the likelihood of a person being prosecuted for a “minor” offense while also wanting the police to stop motorcyclists for making loud noises – something that might be seen as a minor offense.
Asked by City Council member Lisa Babcock to speak to what can be legally done in terms of ticketing, City Attorney Mike Homier said that the City is limited by the State’s laws regarding noise regulation. Homier did not, however, explain what state law allows ELPD officers to do in terms of writing tickets for vehicle-produced noise.
Responding last Thursday to emailed questions from ELi, Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez noted that while officers deal with complaints about moving vehicles, ELPD’s new Neighborhood Resource Specialists and Neighborhood Resource Teams “are working together in an effort to mitigate the issues. Their efforts are focused on a range of activities from motor vehicle code enforcement to thoughts on how potential traffic calming efforts could be brought into play.”
Gonzalez added, “With respect to the loud mufflers, the state motor vehicle code contains certain decibel levels that must be exceeded for a violation to exist. We are currently researching legally reliable meters to measure such noise that could be used during enforcement efforts and hold up under court scrutiny if a citation were to be contested.”
Some of the tensions arise not only from the question of what policing should look like in East Lansing today, but also from the changing nature of the City, with a growing and age-diversifying downtown.
In her remarks to Council, Wing noted that construction of big buildings in downtown East Lansing has meant all-day-long construction vehicle traffic roaring along West Grand River Ave., changing the feel of north Chesterfield Hills and south Glencairn.
And, echoing complaints of mature adults now living downtown, Lahanas has indicated unhappiness with loud bar noise along Albert Ave., noting that property owners are not supposed to have amplified sound audible from beyond their property lines.
Back in February, Newman Lofts resident Paul Dubé wrote in to ELi to say that, while there had been the controversy over under-age-55 tenants being allowed to rent at Newman Lofts, he had “no issue with younger residents living here. Why I am leaving is the continuous drumbeat noise emanating from outside amplifiers, like the one at Fieldhouse, that seem to crawl up to my 10th floor not allowing me to sleep.”
Dubé told ELi, “I know of other residents leaving or [who] have left because of this issue” of bar noise.
But long-time bar owners in the area point out that they have been in business along Albert Ave. for years, paying taxes and fees to the City, only now to have it suggested that they should no longer be allowed to attract customers with live outdoor music and amplified recorded music the way they have done for years downtown.
As ELi reported, stress over noise certainly did not abate during the pandemic-related public health restrictions. And, as East Lansing now undergoes post-pandemic reinvigoration, big redevelopment, and cultural changes, these kinds of struggles over questions of noise seem unlikely to find simple resolutions.