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La Plata County silences hourly chime on Courthouse clock tower

Annual noise complaints lead to seasonal experiment
The clock tower at the La Plata County Courthouse on East Second Avenue in Durango. La Plata County has temporarily suspended chiming of the Courthouse bell after noise complaints. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County has temporarily suspended the hourly ringing of the Courthouse bell after noise complaints by residents who live in the downtown area. But it plans to revisit the decision after Labor Day.

The chime was silenced around Memorial Day in response to a number of noise complaints.

La Plata County receives about a dozen complaints annually about the bell, which goes off on the hour, every hour, said County Manager Chuck Stevens.

The complaints are seasonal starting in late spring and extending through the summer and into the fall. When windows are closed during the winter, the county does not receive any complaints, Stevens said.

“In the late spring/early summer before air conditioners are really needed, people like to have their windows open. If you’re trying to sleep at night and you get the 11 (and) 12 (dings) that’s very disruptive,” Stevens said.

The bell is more than a century old, having been shipped and installed in Durango in 1891. To stop the bell, the county must physically dismantle the clapper, which strikes the bell.

Because the bell is an antique, the county does not have the ability to turn it on during the day and off at night to mitigate complaints.

“It’s not like we can program it. It’s either chimes or no chimes,” Stevens said.

The county plans to suspend the bell through Labor Day, collecting feedback from the community to decide whether the chime should continue to ring throughout the spring and summer.

“We’re experimenting. We didn’t just unplug it and say, ‘That’s done.’ It’s a trial period,” said Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County.

In addition to the complaints about the noise, the county has received one request to bring back the bell.

This is not the first time that the La Plata County Courthouse chime has hit a rough patch. The clock and bell have a history of being too fast or too slow, and because of its 19th-century construction, the clock has had to undergo extensive repairs with parts increasingly difficult to find.

La Plata County may move to mute the chime seasonally depending on feedback. Because of the time it takes to deconstruct and reconstruct the clapper, as well as safety concerns because the bell is challenging to reach in the Courthouse tower, the county will not adjust the bell more than twice per year, Stevens said.

“My big concern is the safety of my people that have got to get up there and do this,” he said. “I’m not going to have an employee get injured to connect and reconnect this thing twice a year if it’s too dicey. We did it once. We’ll probably reconnect it, and then I’ll have to talk to the team and figure out is this something we can do safely and go from there.”

Stevens has informed the county commissioners about the county’s experiment because of the historic significance of the bell, which businesses relied on to mark opening and closing and was an important part of Durango’s identity in the decades after the town’s founding in 1880.

However, the decision is not driven by policy, so Stevens and county staff members will ultimately decide the best way to manage the chime, taking into account public input.

“We’re trying to find a compromise that works for most people and we’re seeing how this test period goes,” he said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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