In this Jan. 10, 2021, file photo, Pavel Dokukin of Augusta and Jennifer Crowley of Hampden join demonstrators in downtown Belfast to protest pandemic restrictions. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast city councilors unanimously voted Tuesday to amend the city’s noise ordinance to include megaphones, along with other types of amplified noise, and to make it easier to enforce.

The ordinance and its prohibition of unreasonable noise affects the whole city, not just downtown. But it’s downtown that has been a lightning rod for controversy in recent months, in large part because of anti-mask and anti-shut down protesters who gather at the corner of High and Main streets on Sundays. The protesters often have used a loud megaphone to get the attention of passersby.

Although the proposed changes have been hotly debated on local social media pages, only one person spoke at the public hearing that was held prior to the councilors’ discussion and vote. That person had questions about whether the amended noise ordinance would affect activities such as ATV riding and target practice.

But those activities are exempted from the ordinance, along with noises from school and church bells, emergency vehicle sirens, motorcycles, legal hunting, tugboat operation, school sporting events, snowmobiling and others. Special events also will be exempt as long as organizers have obtained a permit from the city.

“Run of the mill, normal things are not affected by this ordinance” City Councilor Mike Hurley said after the public hearing. “It’s like the definition of [obscenity] — I’ll know it when I see it. I don’t think anybody walking around talking or with their kid riding an ATV has to worry about it.”

In order for the ordinance to be enforced by police, the ambient or background noise in a particular area would need to be determined by the city’s decibel reader, which will now be kept at the police station.

Councilors decided Tuesday that if the noise in question is at least 20 decibels greater than the background soundscape of the area for at least five minutes during 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.

Two weeks ago, they had discussed making the standard 10 decibels over background noise, but decided to up the limit.

“I think at 10 decibels, we will have a lot of people with no intention of causing a ruckus who will find themselves in violation,” Councilor Neal Harkness said.

The measure of noise in a public place will take place 50 feet from the source of the noise, City Attorney Bill Kelly said, adding that police officers had begun to experiment with the decibel reader.

The standard the city previously had used in the noise ordinance was how noise affects someone else’s life, he said. By adding the provision about measuring the increase of noise with a decibel reader, the city intends to make the ordinance more effective and enforceable.