AUSTIN HAD THIS SAME PROBLEM
Twelve years ago, Austin had a problem with noise complaints targeting music venues. At the time, Austin’s approach to noise was a lot like San Antonio’s — it set rules about loudness and hours, it carved out some exceptions for particular districts, and it relied on enforcement to get compliance. The rules applied across the board, to both residences and businesses.
And, like here, it wasn’t working very well. It certainly didn’t satisfy the residents and neighborhood organizations that lodged the complaints against the music venues, and from the perspective of businesses, it made the operation of music venues difficult and unpredictable.
So the city decided to try a different approach, and that approach, with some refinements, is still in place today.
KEY FEATURES OF THE AUSTIN APPROACH
Austin’s approach has a few key features that distinguish it from San Antonio’s — and from that of most cities.
There are separate rules for commercial and residential noise.
Permits are required for outdoor amplified sound.
Each permit is custom-tailored to the venue and emphasizes sound mitigation.
Noise complaints for permitted venues are handled by code enforcement, not by the police department.
Permits may be suspended for repeated violations.
Each of these features is critical to the success of the plan. Let’s take a look at them one-by-one.
Austin is known for its live music venues, and, like San Antonio, it had to find a way to allow music and residences to co-exist.
4. Noise complaints are handled by code inspectors
Here in San Antonio, a big problem with noise complaints is that they are handled by the San Antonio Police Department. That’s a problem for three reasons:
The first problem, priority, is obvious. SAPD has a lot bigger issues to deal with than noise complaints. In fact, SAPD has a formal ranking system that determines the order in which calls of different types get handled. Noise complaints are at the bottom of that list.
As a result, many noise complaints don’t get handled at all, and those that get handled may not get attention until hours later, often after the noise has ended.
The second problem, expertise, may not be as obvious, but the noise ordinance is complicated, and it’s just one of thousands of laws and rules police officers must enforce. The average patrol officer can’t be an expert in all of them. It’s been reported during task force discussions that some officers misunderstand the city’s ‘entertainment zones’, thinking that their looser regulations apply to places like South Alamo and the North St. Mary’s strip, while in fact they apply only to places like Fiesta Texas and Sea World.
The third problem is that patrol cars don’t carry sound measurement equipment, so patrol officers can’t easily enforce decibel limits. In order to check decibel levels at a venue, they’d have to make a trip to pick up equipment.
Twelve years ago, Austin handled noise complaints the same way as San Antonio — complaints were handled by the police department, and they were a low priority.
That didn’t change initially, when the new permitting system was introduced.
But early last year, responsibility for noise complaints filed against permitted venues was handed over to Brian’s department. That’s still a work in progress — for now, all complaints get channeled into the same system, and Brian’s inspectors have to filter through them to find complaints against permitted venues — but it’s a big improvement.
The department has two full-time code inspectors assigned to handling those noise complaints. Unlike other code inspectors, the sound inspectors work nights and weekends — during the days and hours that the venues are operating.
In the beginning, these inspectors primarily handled complaints — there were enough of those to keep them busy. Over time, however, they’ve tried to become more proactive, meeting with venue managers and working with violators to get them into compliance. Sometimes that’s just a matter of education, especially in cases where there’s been a change of management, and the new people don’t understand the rules.
“It’s already made a huge impact,” Brian explains, “because they’ve reestablished relationships with the owners and the applicants, and then they provide education and seek voluntary compliance, and take enforcement actions when they're not getting that kind of cooperation.”
Mostly, he says, he wants the inspectors to be problem-solvers. “So even if the establishment has a sound level that they're operating within, if they're disturbing someone, I’d like to see if we can solve that problem without taking anything away from the establishment.”
5. Permits can be suspended
When education and discussion don’t work, the inspectors can issue citations.
Citations result in fines, but that’s not the real hammer. After all, for a venue making good money on liquor sales, noise violation fines don’t have much impact. The real hammer is suspension of the permit.
If a venue gets four violations in a 45-day period, its permit will be suspended for two weeks. That means the venue can’t have any amplified sound at all. If it does — if it ignores the suspension — its permit can be revoked.
In addition, at renewal time, violations are taken into account when considering whether the permit will be renewed.
When the code inspectors took over responsibility for sound complaints last year, the system needed fixing. Complaints were coming in at a rate of more than one hundred per night.
David Chapman, Environmental Compliance Supervisor for Austin’s Development Services Department — in a December presentation to the city’s Environmental Commission — described what he and his staff did.
“We started checking the OMV permits, making sure that the establishments were in compliance with their permit, with their sound impact plan. Then we communicated with the managers of the establishments.”
After doing that for a couple of months, he said, “we found out that a few establishments needed a little more assistance coming into compliance. So we started issuing citations.”
For venues that were approaching the four-violation cutoff point, Chapman said that he and his staff held meetings with them, making clear what was going to happen, and carefully walking them through the ordinance and their impact plan. So far, he reported, that’s been working, and venues have been fixing their problems.
“We are getting close to where we may have to suspend some permits,” he said, “but we haven’t gotten there yet.”
1. Separate rules for commercial and residential
The fundamental feature that underlies the whole system is the establishment of separate rules to govern outdoor music venues. Separating the sound produced by those venues from the ’noise’ produced by residences and other sources is what makes the system possible.
There are good reasons to handle music venues separately.
Unlike sound from most other sources, sound from music venues isn’t incidental to their operations, it’s the core. And that sound isn’t a one-time thing, like a residential house party. It’s continuing.
Most critically, it’s susceptible to management, since the venues are operated by a limited number of professionals who want a workable solution for their businesses, who can be educated about the rules and about mitigation techniques, and who are, for the most part, open to suggestions that can provide solutions.
2. Permits are required for music venues
The next key feature of the system is permits.
In order to offer outdoor amplified sound, a business must have an Outdoor Music Venue (OMV) permit.
That permit provides the foundation for most of the other features that I’ll discuss below. But most critically, it’s very black and white: You either have it or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s no need for anyone to measure decibel ratings at your property line using carefully calibrated and expensive monitors. If you’ve got a speaker producing sound and you don’t have a permit, you’re in violation.
That simplifies enforcement.
At any time, there are between 125 and 150 active permits in the city, according to Brian Block, Entertainment Services Manager for the City of Austin's Development Services Department.
3. Permits are custom-tailored and emphasize mitigation
Noise is considered a health and safety issue in Austin, and permits are designed to mitigate the impact of amplified sound on neighboring residences and businesses.
Each permit requires the preparation of a Sound Impact Plan by Brian Block’s team. The plan sets out rules for the venue that include:
The days and hours when amplified music is allowed.
The decibel level that is allowed.
Special sound mitigation rules that must be followed.
That last component can include such things as the type, number, and orientation of speakers; requirements for physical sound barriers; even a limitation on the types of drums permitted.
This approach was developed under Don Pitts, who was Brian’s predecessor in this position. (He is now a consultant and has been retained by the City of San Antonio to act as an advisor to the Noise Ordinance Task Force). Don held the position for seven years. Brian has now had the job for five.
Although the Sound Impact Plan is prepared by Brian’s department, it’s done in collaboration with the venue and the neighborhood. Brian’s group plays three roles:
Part of the permit application process is notification of the venue’s neighbors, including nearby residents, neighborhood associations, and business associations. They are invited to participate in development of the Sound Impact Plan. As facilitator, Brian's team manages that process.
Brian’s people also act as educators and expert consultants. They can’t expect that either the venue or its neighbors are going to be experts in sound management and mitigation. The venue’s managers may know music, but that’s not the same thing.
Brian’s staff visits the venue and discusses the venue’s operational plans. They examine the physical facility. They may do walk-arounds with neighbors.
As experts in sound mitigation technology, they’ll also make technical recommendations to the venue’s management — for things like speaker orientation or sound curtains — and those recommendations may become part of the impact plan and, therefore, conditions of the permit.
“A lot of work goes into that initial permit,” Brian says, “because we'll do a lot of site visits and testing, a lot of evaluation and analysis... talking to stakeholders, really understanding the area where it's located, what the programming is, what the sound system is and the sound mitigating interventions that might be in place.”
He points out that it’s worth putting a lot of effort into the initial evaluation and permit. Even though the permit is reviewed and renewed annually, the real goal is long-term predictability.
“We want predictability, so a business owner who's got amplified sound as part of their programming, as part of their business model, can make decisions and carry out their business plan into the future without having to worry that, ‘Oh, the city's going to change this on us every year.’”
It’s the same thing on the residential side, he says.
“There should be predictability about what's it going to be like in the environment around my home or my building, and builders should have that level of predictability, too, so they can factor that into their construction and design standards.”
“I think a big part of this is trying to make it less of a fight and more of all stakeholders looking for a fair, reasonable, and balanced approach”, Bryan says. “I’m not saying it's easy, but I think that has to be part of the approach: to have the ability to be flexible and then to find that right balance.”
HOW IT’S WORKING FOR NEIGHBORHOODS
A lot of Austin’s live music venues are in purely commercial areas. The famed Sixth Street district, for example, doesn’t back up to a residential neighborhood. However, there are also venues in mixed areas, where music venues and residences must co-exist.
One such area is the Zilker neighborhood, a near-downtown residential neighborhood with an active neighborhood association. I spoke with two members of the association’s zoning committee, Bruce Wiland and Bill Neale, to get their impressions of how well the permitting approach works.
Their basic report was positive.
“I think that for the most part, the permits have worked”, Bruce Wiland told me. “We generally haven’t had problems with the places that have permits.”
He said, however, that places without permits can be an issue. Ironically, it’s because they’re outside the system.
“The city just doesn’t seem to want to enforce against them. They sort of push it onto the police, when there’s no permit, and the police don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
But bottom line, Bruce thinks that the permits have value due to their black-and-white simplicity.
“If a venue gets a permit, they pretty much have read the permit. If there was no permit, a lot of them haven't even read the ordinance. So it at least forces them to acknowledge that there are limits on what they can do.”
Bill Neale also sees the permit system as an overall positive, but he says it’s important that enforcement mechanisms ‘have some teeth.’
“In Austin, and I think it's probably true of San Antonio, too,” he said, “the city doesn’t want to shut down businesses. So I think that a lot of venues think, ‘you're not going to shut us down’. I mean, they don't say that, but that's what they probably understand. So there's this kind of two-step that goes on. They'll get a warning and maybe their behavior will improve for a while. You need to make sure the mechanism has teeth.”
Because neighborhood associations have input to the permits, venues have an incentive to communicate with them, and that’s valuable, too.
Bruce pointed to a new Zilker venue that came to the association’s executive committee to make a presentation, in order to "get off on the right foot". Later, when that venue wanted to extend its hours, it first spoke with the association. The association said no, and the venue dropped the issue.
Bill pointed to the importance of having a good team in the responsible city department.
“Brian Block is someone who takes a very balanced approach,” Bill said. “He views the needs of the venues and the needs of the neighborhood. I think that's a key element. Don Pitts, back when he was in that position, I think initially he was very much pro venue, but then he saw the impact that some of these venues can have on the neighborhoods. Both of those guys were looking after the interests of the neighborhood in a way that you shouldn't just take for granted. We could have done a lot worse, as neighborhoods, than to have Don Pitts and Brian Block.”
SEEING IT FROM THE VENUE PERSPECTIVE
Rebecca Reynolds is president of Music Venue Alliance - Austin, an advocacy organization that represents many of Austin’s live music venues. In that role, she has been involved with Austin’s sound ordinance for a lot of years, and she has worked on behalf of her industry with both Brian Block and his predecessor, Don Pitts.
When I spoke with Rebecca, she talked about how things stood when she first got involved.
Residents were angry, she said, and calling the police. Even venues that were operating within the law got visits from the police. “Having a cop visit your business every single night has an impact on your business,” she said, “even if you’re operating within the law.”
Fixing that acrimonious atmosphere took a lot of work, including, among other things, meetings between neighbors and venues that were organized by the city.
Together, the participants figured out two things.
First, Rebecca said, “the venues and the neighborhoods realized that it wasn’t each other they were mad at, it was the city.” Enforcement wasn’t working for either side.
Second, she said, they realized that venues in general were being hurt by a handful of bad actors.
“We did a lot of PR work with our neighborhoods to say that actual live music venues are on your side. We care about the rules. We care about a healthy community. We’ll give you our phone numbers. If something gets out of hand, call us, we’ll turn it down.”
“Music is not the enemy,” Rebecca emphasized. “It’s business owners who put profit over community.”
Over time, Austin developed its current permitting system. Rebecca likes the way that system requires the city’s sound engineer to work with the venue, study its specific situation, “and give you a unique prescription for your business in your neighborhood.”
“That’s a really great way to go about it.”
The permits alone aren’t enough, however.
Even once the permit system was in place, enforcement remained an issue.
“Who do you call in the middle of the night? Is that department staffed to show up in real time? Because once you've made a complaint about a sound level breach, the infraction has already happened by the time somebody shows up on scene. Sometimes there's no response for a day or two.”
Rebecca says she worked with Brian Block and the city on that issue. It was important, she said, to get enforcement out of the hands of the police department.
“They have more important things to do,” she said. “And they don’t like responding to sound complaints.”
So she considers it important that Brian’s department now has staff that works at night and that has the authority to issue citations.
Asked about her overall advice for San Antonio, Rebecca pointed to their experience in Austin.
“We had to take a few steps back,” she explained, “and say, okay, can we all agree that having live music, particularly in a city like Austin or San Antonio, is valuable to the community from a cultural perspective and from an economic perspective? Yes! Everybody can answer that affirmatively. So then the goal has to be, how do we create an environment that's harmonious, where we can live together so that my needs don't infringe upon your needs.”
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
A big part of this is trying to make it less of a fight and more of all stakeholders looking for a fair, reasonable, and balanced approach.
How do we create an environment that's harmonious, where we can live together so that my needs don't infringe upon your needs?
Austin's approach to sound management
Tuesday, March 15, 2022