Debate Over Muting A Cape Cod Town's Bells

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For years, the town bells in Truro, Mass., have been part of life in the town of scrub pines and weathered houses. But recently, protests have rung out from some who want the bells toned down. And that has led to new disputes. With a population of just more than 2,000, Truro is Cape Cod's most rural community. From member station WCAI, Brian Morris reports.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For years, the bells in Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod have been as much as a part of the landscape as scrub pines and weathered houses. Truro is a very rural place, with just more than 2,000 residents. And recently there have been protests over the bells, which some say are too loud.

From member station WCAI, Brian Morris reports.

BRIAN MORRIS: Roberta Lima(ph) has lived in Truro all her life.

Ms. ROBERTA LIMA (Resident, Truro, Massachusetts): When I was kid, nobody had watches. We couldn't afford watches.

(Soundbite of bells)

MORRIS: She remembers a childhood where the town hall bells would toll across the hills like a reliable, old community alarm clock.

Ms. LIMA: You were told to be home - listen for the bells. You could hear them over to the ocean, and you came home on time because the bells would ring.

MORRIS: For almost 70 years, the bells were as reliable as the wind off Cape Cod Bay, but they were silenced during town hall renovations. They came back on in 2004, after several years.

(Soundbite of bells)

Mr. MICHAEL SNELL(ph) (Resident, Truro, Massachusetts): That's the full monty. We get that at midnight.

MORRIS: Or at least that was the full monty. Michael Snell lives just down the hill from Truro Town Hall. He lodged a complaint with the State of Massachusetts.

Mr. SNELL: I just woke up one day, and there were these bells going off at that time, 24 hours a day, at 80 decibels, every 15 minutes. I counted one day and there are 780 bangs a day. And you multiply that times a week, times a year -if I were to live here for 20 years, you know, it's 9 million.

MORRIS: The law says the bells can't be louder than 10 decibels above Truro's ambient noise. That mostly includes crickets, crows, warblers and wind. But for some residents, like Roberta Lima, ambient noise is a matter of interpretation.

Ms. LIMA: I don't know what ambience noise means, and I don't think anybody else has come up with what that really means. Wouldn't the bells be part of the ambience noise? I don't know.

MORRIS: Last spring, the state ordered the bells turned off while the town installed insulation in the cupola, re-worked the striking mechanism and put in louvers. The muted bells made their debut last week.

(Soundbite of bells)

MORRIS: The bells are a bit quieter, but Michael Snell says they still ring too frequently.

Mr. SNELL: You ring those bells on the hour, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, and I don't care how loud they are. You can ring them so they can hear them in the space station Mir for all I care.

MORRIS: Retired music teacher Martha Nagy(ph) also lives right near Town Hall, but she loves the bells.

Ms. MARTHA NAGY (Resident, Truro, Massachusetts): They've never, ever bothered me. It's like city traffic or other things that you hear or you don't hear depending on sort of what your head is telling you.

MORRIS: Over at Pamet Harbor on a warm, late summer afternoon, Nina Jackson paints at the small easel she set up next to the harbor master's shack. She's from Bedford, Massachusetts.

Ms. NINA JACKSON (Resident, Truro, Massachusetts): I like chimes. I mean, I think they're part of a community and serenity and something that gives people a peaceful feeling, and if I lived in Truro, I would say I'd be very careful to silence them, surely.

MORRIS: For now, neither the bells nor the debate have been silenced.

For NPR News, this is Brian Morris on Cape Cod.

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