In this Jan. 3, 2021, file photo, a group of people protest state mask mandates on the corner of High and Main streets in downtown Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Months after complaints began to come in to Belfast officials about a group of anti-mask protesters and a loud megaphone they often use, councilors want to expand a noise ordinance to include bullhorns while making it easier to enforce across the city.

Councilor Mary Mortier acknowledged Tuesday that the megaphone has been cited as a problem by people concerned by the anti-mask protests, which can last for up to two hours. But officials emphasized that the revision of the city’s decades-old noise ordinance is aimed at creating a citywide standard and not just at one or two of the groups that protest downtown.

“Our job as councilors is to represent the citizens of Belfast — of all of Belfast. We take that very seriously,” Mortier said. “Our goal is to look for an equitable, sustainable solution for the whole community.”

The move comes as councilors are trying to balance two different things: the First Amendment, which prevents the government from making laws that abridge the freedom of speech, while being responsive to residents, visitors and merchants who say the Sunday protests that have gone on since November have negatively affected their quality of life.

According to the revised ordinance, the prohibition of unreasonable noise would apply to the whole city, not just the downtown, and address noise on both public and private property. It includes noise created by yelling, singing or using bullhorns or other devices that amplify sound, City Attorney Bill Kelly told councilors at a meeting last week. A public hearing for the revised ordinance is scheduled to take place at a council meeting on Tuesday.

In order for the ordinance to be enforced, the ambient or background noise in a particular area would be determined by the city’s decibel reader. If the noise in question is at least 10 decibels greater than the background soundscape of the area for at least five minutes over one hour, police could issue a warning to the person making the noise. If the same person has a second violation within 30 days, it would be a civil violation and they could be fined $400.

“If you want it to be effective, the two-step process of measuring ambient noise, background noise, and then measuring the increase because of the behavior, really seems to be the only way to go,” Kelly said.

There are exceptions to the ordinance, including noises from school and church bells, emergency vehicle sirens, legal hunting, tugboat operation, school sporting events, snowmobiling and lawn mowers and leaf blowers operated within specified hours. Special events will be exempt as long as organizers have obtained a permit from the city.

At the meeting, as councilors debated finer points of the ordinance, Councilor Mike Hurley connected it to the recent protests. In addition to the megaphone used by the anti-mask protesters who meet on Sunday afternoons at the corner of Main and High streets, the Black Lives Matter protesters who meet at Post Office Square on Sundays have been using amplifiers to play music while they gather.

“This entire process is so that we have a tool to do something about amplified music and loudspeakers in particular,” he said. “Everything else has never been a real problem.”

Mortier, who hasn’t heard complaints about noise generated by the Black Lives Matter group, said this week that it was just time to tighten up the noise ordinance.

“Times have changed. Our downtown has changed,” she said. “It’s beyond the corner and Post Office Square protesters. It’s noise of any kind.”