State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Just Can’t Take It Any Mow

by on June 01, 2016 6:00 AM

This Central Pennsylvania May was too cold, too hot and, as always, perfectly gorgeous, from its tulips to its irises, from the white of its dogwood blossoms to the 50 shades of green of its coniferous and deciduous trees. My one complaint, fellow citizens: the ceaseless roar of power mowers.

You know my screen porch, the one that became a giant sparrow cage in last week’s column? Once the weather permits, I like to take my coffee and my electronic news reader out there in the early morning, work out there on and off throughout the day, then dine al fresco in the evening.

Putting it another way, from May to October I like to use my screen porch between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Those happen to be the exact hours when it is permissible, according to State College’s noise control ordinance, to operate power equipment.

If you haven’t read the borough’s noise ordinance, allow me to share some of its highlights.

First, it recognizes that “disturbing, excessive or uncontrolled noise” abridges “public health, safety and welfare.” We State College residents have a right, it says, “to an environment free from noise disturbances.”

So far, so good. Then comes the definitions section, some of which appears to be written in English but is actually rendered in the dialect known as legalese. Consider the definition of “plainly audible”: “Any sound that can be detected by a person of normal sensibilities using his or her unaided hearing facilities.”

You know, as in: “Do your hearing facilities hang low?/Do they wobble to and fro?/Can you tie ‘em in a knot?/Can you tie ‘em in a bow?”

Then there’s the definition of Unreasonable Noise:

“Sound that is of a volume that prevents, disrupts, injures or endangers the health, safety, welfare, comfort or repose of reasonable persons of ordinary sensitivities...”

When we learn, in Section 103 – Unlawful Noise Prohibited (I’ll bet there was a lively discussion over at the Department of Redundancy Department about whether a better name for this section would be “Prohibited Noise Unlawful”), that we may operate lawn and garden equipment during some hours but not others, we must conclude that the operation of such equipment during the permitted hours does

NOT bother “reasonable persons of ordinary sensitivities.”

It follows that those who ARE bothered by mowers, blowers and snow throwers must be unreasonable persons of extraordinary sensitivities. I have long suspected as much about myself.

But suppose there are many of us who are being driven mad by the sound of somebody somewhere always mowing. Might the noise ordinance be tweaked in deference to OUR health, safety and welfare?

Setting aside the question of whether we should even be growing inedible herbage, as opposed to, say, Brussels sprouts (here I must acknowledge that the hundreds of hours of wiffleball, badminton, croquet and kiddie pool fun I had with my kids would not have gone nearly as well in a vegetable garden), we readily concede that grass must be cut, especially now. During the peak of spring, an untended lawn might grown tall enough to conceal the presence of a musk ox, and you would not want to startle a musk ox in your backyard.

Sensitive persons that we are, we also recognize that the noise control ordinance was designed not just to accommodate the work and family schedules of busy homeowners, but also to make it possible for lawn care professionals to ply their trade.

Right now, though, everyone has a 14-hour mowing window. In the words of Tevye the milkman, would it spoil some vast eternal plan if we were to add a few more hours of quiet time to the beginning and end of the day – say, make the mowing time from 9 to 7 instead of 7 to 9?

If you’re wondering whether I am hypocritically disturbing the repose of my neighbors by using “power equipment” to cut my grass, I must admit that I am. I used to have a rotary, muscle-powered push mower that was quiet, eco-friendly and therefore perfect in every way but one: It didn’t cut the grass.

So now I have a mower with a rechargeable battery that is quieter than a gas-powered mower, but still loud enough to disturb an unreasonable neighbor of extraordinary sensitivities.

Let me know if you’re with me on this. If not, I will start doing what everyone else in America does: block out ambient sound with manufactured sound that is piped directly into my hearing facilities.

If I go that route, I’m not going to listen to music or news or audiobooks or podcasts. I’m going to find recordings of cardinals, catbirds, robins, jays, sparrows and the other visitors to my backyard that get drowned out by the sound of mowers, and pretend I’m hearing the real thing.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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