If you’ve lived in the neighborhood for a while, you’ve almost certainly heard complaints about noise, mostly from neighbors whose residential properties border the commercial corridors along South Alamo and South St. Mary’s Streets.
Early last year, our former city council representative, Roberto Treviño, heard those complaints, and he joined District 10 representative Clayton Perry to ask the city to study the issue and recommend better mechanisms for dealing with the problem.
As Treviño and Perry wrote at the time:
The availability of food, beverage, and/or entertainment businesses near neighborhoods has had a positive cultural impact as well as stabilized residential property values. It has also presented unique challenges that affect residents' quality of life. This has led to a less than harmonious relationship between neighborhoods like King William, Oak Park- Northwood, and Tobin Hill and abutting food/beverage/entertainment business.
The intent of this policy is to determine how the Noise Ordinance can be adjusted so it is easy to understand and enforce, and so residents can have peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their home without having to resort to filing a complaint on their commercial neighbors.
Sound can be complicated
The result was a citizen’s task force organized by the city’s Development Services Department (DSD). DSD is responsible for code compliance, and that includes responsibility for investigating noise violations.
The task force has been looking at the issue city-wide. It’s made up of fifteen people, including both residential and business representatives, as well as city staff.
The task force has been meeting now for more than half a year. Their original mandate was to return recommendations in ninety days, but they seem to be going nowhere.
Time for a reset
When LNF Weekly first decided to do a story on the noise ordinance and the task force, we expected to do a lengthy explanatory article; something that laid out all the facts and reported multiple points of view.
After collecting a lot of information — including interviews with task force participants and observers, reading background documents, and attending the two most recent task force meetings — we’ve decided to put that article aside for now.
Instead, we want to encourage the Council and DSD to just start over.
In spite of months of meetings, the task force is going nowhere. It’s rudderless, and it seems to be promoting acrimony rather than achieving consensus.
That’s not a criticism of the task force members. It’s a criticism of the process. It feels like no one is in charge; there’s no plan; and the task force is simply flailing.
As Beethoven Maennerchor president David Uhler put it:
“The problem with the task force, as I see it, is it seems like everything’s on the table, everything’s been on the table, and everything’s still on the table.”
It’s time for a re-set. Let’s start over and do it right.
How to fix the task force
In our opinion, the task force needs to improve three things:
Let’s take those one by one.
DSD director Michael Shannon currently chairs the task force meetings. He’s a great meeting facilitator. He does an excellent job of listening to people, and he makes sure that everyone is heard.
But the task force doesn’t seem to have a real leader — someone to take charge, direct the substance of the meeting, and push the project forward.
By now, the task force should, at a minimum, have agreed on the contours of the problem and on a set of possible solutions to discuss. Instead, we’re still spending time airing grievances and arguing about the task force’s makeup and objectives.
I know that leading this project is not going to be easy. I’m new to city task forces, but I suspect that leading a task force is always a challenge. Nonetheless, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.
Task force members are, for the most part, interested citizens. What they are not is experts on sound and noise ordinances. We can’t expect them to come in the door with that expertise, but the first thing we should do is give them the necessary education.
I’d argue that DSD should have done some solid research on how these sound issues are being handled elsewhere and should then have presented that information to the task force — shown the members the approaches that are being taken elsewhere, talked about what works, and what doesn’t work. Maybe the task force could even have heard from officials in some of those other cities.
It seems that the only research on that subject was done by the King William Association, which put together a paper on what they found, but in the polarized climate of the task force, I suspect that research looked like a weapon, not an aid to the process.
Task force members should also have been given a good grounding in the practical science of sound and how it works in a community setting. That’s not as simple as it sounds.
The problem of education relates directly to the third short-coming — the lack of expert resources. The task force should have been educated upfront by an expert, and, as members worked on the problem, they should have been assisted by an expert.
This particular problem may be on the way to a solution.
During the December meeting, a possible expert resource was introduced to the task force. Don Pitts, an independent consultant, once had responsibility for exactly this issue in the City of Austin. His responsibilities were different from those of DSD. He was responsible for encouraging the city’s music industry, but, because so many repeat noise complaints involved music venues, he was handed the job of fixing it.
Don told the task force that his team managed to reduce noise complaints by more than seventy percent. The secret, he told me when we spoke later, was to stop focusing on ‘enforcement’ — that is, punishing violations — and to instead focus on fixing problems. Usually, Don said, the sound problems his department encountered were fixable; that is, he could recommend mechanical changes that solved the problem while also being affordable for the venue.
He had a small team (two people, he says) that worked with the businesses and their neighbors to find those fixes. That, he believes, produces long-lasting solutions while requiring far fewer personnel resources than does an enforcement strategy.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that Don had a tool in Austin that made it easier to get compliance. Austin’s noise ordinance was based on a permitting system. Businesses had to earn and keep a permit for outdoor amplified sound.
Anyhow, Don was introduced at the December meeting. He, or someone like him, should become an active advisor to the task force and to the leadership of the task force.
Can we get a reset
We’ve spoken with multiple participants in the process, including task force members from Lavaca and King William. We’ve also spoken with our new District 1 councilman, Mario Bravo.
Several people spoke about the need for a reset.
Jody Newman, a task force member and an owner of multiple food and beverage businesses, says that she found the process so discouraging that she essentially gave up her seat to Beethoven’s David Uhler.
“Some of the business owners have been so personally attacked. I'm not sure how the city can expect them to come to the table,” she said. “I really do feel like Councilman Bravo could probably scrap this task force and start over and we'd probably be in a better situation. I mean, we can’t even get off the ground with this task force, and we’ve been meeting since May.”
The strongest voice asking for a re-set probably comes from District 1’s new council representative, Mario Bravo himself.
Councilman Mario Bravo
Councilman Bravo told us that he has been hearing from many participants who are not happy with the process.
“I’ve received a lot of complaints,” he said, “from both neighborhood residents and business owners who are involved in the task force, about the process. And it’s gotten to the point where the tone has been very adversarial.”
“So we’ve been working behind the scenes to see if we can make some changes to reform the process,” he said.
“The first thing that jumped out at me,” he reported, “was why don’t we have any sound experts here? If we just have a bunch of people who are angry — people who are angry because the music’s too loud, people who are angry because residents are calling the police on them — who are the people who can actually help us make informed decisions on what solutions would be most effective?”
“This is not a criticism of city staff in any way,” he added, “but they may be trying to manage something that they’re not specific experts in.”
It was his office, Councilman Bravo says, that reached out to expert Don Pitts and initially asked him to come to San Antonio to meet with people.
Support for bringing in an expert
Councilman Bravo’s recommendation of an expert seems to have broad support.
Task force member John Doski of the King William Association, was solidly in favor of it. That’s something he’s been asking for, John told me.
“We need to bring a little bit of scientific method to this,” he said.
David Uhler agrees.
“Why don’t we go ahead and bring a guy like Don in and get this done, and not keep kicking the can down the road.”
Councilman Bravo sums it up: “My dream is that San Antonio is a city where the live music industry can flourish and where neighborhood residents can get a good night's sleep.”
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
Noise Ordinance Task Force: Let's Start Over
Tuesday, January 18, 2022