FINALLY THERE'S SOMETHING ON THE TABLE
The city’s Noise Ordinance Task Force is continuing to meet, but it now has a concrete plan to consider and either recommend or reject.
The Task Force has been plagued over the past year by a lack of focus and direction. Back in January, we recommended that the City hire an expert to provide some advice and guidance to the Task Force. With encouragement from our District 1 Councilman, Mario Bravo, the City did just that, hiring Sound Music Cities (SMC), an Austin-based consulting firm.
Sound Music Cities (SMC) partners Don Pitts and Bobby Garza.
Under the recommended permitting approach, enforcement becomes less of a priority, SMC says. Instead, by working with venues and their neighbors, city staff will be aiming for mutual understanding and voluntary compliance.
“The need to suspend or revoke permits should arise with diminishing frequency,” SMC says.
But enforcement is still a part of the plan.
If a venue violates its sound impact plan four times within a 45-day period, its permit can be suspended for up to four weeks. As a condition for lifting the suspension, the permit holder will be required to meet with the staff to discuss their sound impact plan.
And, once the permit has been suspended, enforcement gets tougher. If the venue has another violation within six months of a suspension (or during a suspension), the venue’s permit can be revoked. The report also suggests that there be a mechanism for appealing a revocation.
A key benefit of permits is that they offer clarity.
For ‘good actors’ — that is, for businesses that want to operate responsibly and that want to co-exist with their neighbors — they’ve got a clear plan for how they can operate.
For ‘bad actors’ — venues that ignore the rules and consider fines to be just another cost of doing business — the permit approach replaces slaps on the wrist with genuine consequences.
Enforcement will still be required, but, the report suggests, it can be more focused.
For a period of months during the lifetime of the Task Force, the City kept records of noise complaints, including the address of each reported violation. Based on the data in those records, SMC writes, it’s clear that the City can focus its enforcement efforts on about twenty venues.
Another aspect of the plan that can weed out bad actors: SMC recommends that permits not be issued to any venue that has existing code violations. In their prior report, SMC noted that venues violating the existing noise ordinance also violate other rules.
TASK FORCE REVIEW
The report was presented to the task force at its last meeting, but business representatives who were present asked that the discussion be extended for at least one more meeting.
“We’re down to the last couple of business representatives on the task force,” explained David Uhler, president of Beethoven Maennerchor. “The process has dragged on long enough that people just had to drop off.” He wanted the discussion extended so that more representatives from the business community could participate.
Regarding the key feature of the report — permits: “I think that’s a concept that will probably stick,” David says.
He does worry that some of the language, as it stands, would seem to preclude Beethoven from getting a permit, because of its immediate proximity to residential neighbors.
“On the one hand, I understand people not wanting to give Beethoven any kind of special consideration. But we are a San Antonio tradition and a neighborhood tradition. We’re part of the vibe in Southtown. Yet, with that being said, can we be allowed to be a noisy neighbor? No. But I think we've done a relatively good job in the past of being a good neighbor and we will in the future. And whatever happens, we'll go ahead and follow whatever the law mandates.”
Task force member Steve Versteeg, representing Council District 2, says that, overall, he likes the approach taken by the report.
“I like the sound impact plan and the front end engagement of neighbors,” he told us.
He said that he also likes the fact that the suggested approach includes general guidelines for hours and decibels, but that those numbers can be adjusted in a specific sound impact plan.
Mostly, he sees this as an improvement over the current ‘enforcement-only' approach, which he says hasn’t worked.
“Some people treated it like a speeding ticket,” Steve said. “They’d pay the fine and just speed again and hope they don't get another one.”
“It is just so very frustrating and disheartening when you call and nothing happens. So why would you keep calling and complaining, thinking something's going to happen the next time? Because it just doesn't seem like it will. And then you just give up and think that no one cares.”
He’s open to discussing details, he says.
Personally, he’d accept the report as it stands, if he had to vote.
“If you said ‘go mark this up with your dream of how it could be a little bit better’, then, yeah, I could find some things to change, but they’re not things I’m adamant about.”
He hopes the business representatives will be open to discussion.
“If the businesses have things they just can’t accept, they need to propose something, a compromise, not just say ‘I don’t like this.’”
“What I would like to see is the discussion continue, not just with complaints, but with specific proposals. And then maybe we can come to some kind of agreement on those. Then we’d have a package with those adjustments. We’d have one single recommendation. That's what I would like to see.”
LNF Weekly has been following this issue for quite a while (see the related stories at the bottom of this page), and we have some thoughts about it.
The current enforcement-based approach to commercial sound management is a failure and should be replaced. The permit-based approach recommended by SMC has succeeded elsewhere, winning the support of both business and neighborhood representatives.
We believe that the task force should endorse it and move the proposal on to the city council.
We understand that there may be details to tweak, and we hope that can happen quickly, in the next meeting, if possible. We recommend that the city invite SMC to be present for those discussions, both to clarify the report where necessary and to push back on changes that could damage the effectiveness of the system.
It’s been a long haul, and it’s time to get this done.
SMC is led by Don Pitts, who — as a City of Austin employee — put together Austin’s successful sound management program more than twelve years ago.
In May, after quite a bit of study and after meeting with San Antonio businesses and residents, SMC submitted a preliminary report that — to no one’s surprise — recommended a permit system similar to the system Pitts pioneered in Austin.
SCM has now filed its final report, which provides more detail, but stays within the general guidelines of the earlier report.
There are two key components to the plan submitted by SMC. First, it is based on a permitting system — a business that wants to offer outdoor music would have to get a permit that includes venue-specific rules. Second, it recommends a small, dedicated staff to handle the permitting — a staff that has technical skills and is prepared to engage with both businesses and their residential neighbors, working out rules that recognize the legitimate interests of both parties.
SMC says that this approach — working with venues to establish voluntary compliance — is far more effective than the current enforcement-based system. “Enforcement is a subsequent, less preferred, and more costly action,” they say. “That is not to say that enforcement is not necessary, but in our experience, compliance from well-understood regulation lessens the reliance on enforcement.”
Under SMC’s recommended plan, businesses that want to offer outdoor amplified sound will need a permit.
There is an exception for restaurants that want to provide ‘ambient sound’ — that is, background music rather than entertainment. That’s allowed without a permit, as long as the level of amplification and the size of speakers meets certain standards. ‘Ambient sound’ would exclude live performances; for that, a permit would be required.
But other businesses will have to apply for a permit and work with the city and with neighbors to define a ‘sound impact plan’ that lays out specific rules for such things as size and placement of speakers, level of amplification, installation of sound barriers, and hours of operation. Each sound impact plan is unique and is designed to fit the specific circumstances of the venue and its neighborhood. SMC suggests that multi-year permits be issued to venues with a good record of compliance.
We’ve spoken with Don Pitts of SMC in the past, and he has told us that development of the sound impact plans not only helps businesses and their neighbors to better understand each other, it also serves to educate venue management about sound and about the city’s policies. Often, he has told us, managers are completely unaware of the city’s rules, and the permitting process educates them.
The proposed system requires a dedicated staff, separate from the existing code enforcement staff.
The staff will need two skill sets. They will need expertise and knowledge of sound systems, so that they can analyze each venue’s requirements, and they will need the people skills necessary to mediate between venues and their neighbors.
“Both neighbors and venues need to feel that they have an informed, neutral advocate in city staff that is focused on advancing the process in an objective way,” SMC writes in their report.
SMC also recommends that the city appoint what they call an ‘Accountable Official’ — “a single point person publicly appointed and empowered to make decisions regarding sound management.”
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
In our experience, compliance from well-understood regulation lessens the reliance on enforcement.