As we’ve reported previously, the city’s noise ordinance task force — now about one year into a ninety-day assignment — is broken and needs a reset. With encouragement from our District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, the city has hired a consulting firm, Sound Music Cities (SMC), to guide, advise, and redirect the task force.
SCM’s founding partner, Don Pitts, who is heading up the firm’s project here in San Antonio, developed the largely-successful and well-regarded sound management approach used by the City of Austin, which we wrote about back in March.
He and his business partner, Bobby Garza, began work on the San Antonio project in late February. Up to now, they’ve been collecting information and establishing an understanding of the landscape here in San Antonio. They’ve reviewed the existing ordinance, interviewed members of the task force, spoken with business and neighborhood representatives, and done evening ride-alongs with the city’s code enforcement staff.
Based on all that, SMC has identified issues that need to be dealt with, and they’ve proposed some steps to move forward. They’ve put that into writing with a first report submitted to the city early this month.
Sound Music Cities (SMC) partners Don Pitts and Bobby Garza have begun work with the city's noise ordinance task force.
The SMC report outlines a plan for the next sixty days, saying that the firm will develop a policy framework for what it calls ‘Community Sound Management.’ The framework will be developed, the report says, using small group sessions that include various stakeholders and would also involve ‘field trips’ by task force members.
The aim, according to SMC’s report, is a policy based on permitting. The policy would include training and infrastructure requirements for venues, ‘sound impact plans’ for each venue, and — the report says — would separate ‘good actors’ from ‘bad actors.’
A key piece of SMC’s recommended approach is education and communication — educating venue operators about sound management and facilitating communication between venues and their residential neighbors.
“Until residents, business, and enforcement share a common understanding of what sound level to expect and when,” the report notes, “enforcement will remain challenging, and expectations will be missed.”
SMC’S FIRST REPORT
For anyone who’s been paying attention, it will come as no surprise that SMC has recommended a permitting system for outdoor amplified sound. It will also come as no surprise that SMC says that residential sound should be regulated separately from business sound. And finally, SMC adds that there are issues of secondary noise — like revving automobile engines from departing patrons — that need to be attacked in a different way.
Reading between the lines of the SMC report, we believe that the problem faced by the city with noise from music venues can be broken down into two parts: Helping well-meaning businesses that need guidance and support, and forcing ‘bad actors’ to comply with the rules.
The SMC report emphasizes that bad actors are a very small percentage of the businesses that provide outdoor music, but they play an outsize role in creating a negative image for music venues overall. And the existing system doesn’t give the city any tools for dealing with them.
The operator of one such venue spoke dismissively to SMC of the fines that the city imposes, noting that he can just raise the price of beer to cover them. The report notes that these bad actors don’t limit themselves to sound violations. They’re also guilty of other code violations, such as making alterations to their structure without permits.
The SMC report summarizes what they observed at these businesses:
There appeared to be a significant lack of understanding across business owners/operators we visited regarding:
Rules regarding sound limits in general, much less a differentiated limit depending on the time of day
Rules regarding zoning or permitting and what was allowed or prohibited
Requirements for safe ingress and egress or capacity
Impact of sound on surrounding neighbors
Path of sound behavior or travel
Appropriate sound systems for size and character of venues
Responsible sound mitigation strategies and materials
In general, the establishments SMC observed tended to operate without regard to industry best practices and were oblivious to the surrounding buildings that may or may not have been zoned for residential use.
HOW PERMITTING WOULD WORK
SCM’s proposed permitting system provides mechanisms for dealing with both groups, the good citizens and the bad actors.
The good citizens
The good citizens are well-run businesses that want to offer outdoor music but also genuinely want to be good neighbors. What they often lack, Don Pitts has told us in prior conversations, is the knowledge and expertise needed to deliver sound efficiently — that is, to deliver sound at an optimum level for their patrons while limiting the impact on nearby residents.
The permitting system used in Austin requires city experts to work with venues to develop venue-specific rules for each venue’s amplified sound, and it gives the city a role as facilitator between the venue and the surrounding community. The mechanism also requires that there be a responsible contact person for each venue, so that problems can be dealt with quickly.
The goal is to help these venues to achieve their business objectives without damaging their neighbors' quality of life.
The bad actors
The bad actors are venues that ignore the rules, have little or no concern about the impact on their neighborhoods, and typically have little understanding of sound and how it works. The SMC report refers to one venue they visited where there were few patrons present on the patio, but where the sound was so loud as to make conversation nearly impossible.
The permitting system provides the city with a hammer — denial or withdrawal of the permit — to gain compliance from bad actors in a way that fines cannot.
Changes to code compliance
Of course, for this to work, the city would need to adjust how it staffs and runs this aspect of code compliance.
Most basically, as the SMC report points out, the city would need dedicated code enforcement personnel to work during the evening hours when these venues are operating. Secondly, the city would need staff who are educated in sound management and who can work with venues and neighborhoods to develop the ‘sound impact plan’ required for each venue as part of the permitting process.
And finally, the city would have to enforce the permits. With the good citizen venues, that’s not a huge problem, but the city would have to be willing to take action against the bad actors.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
Until residents, business, and enforcement share a common understanding of what sound level to expect and when, enforcement will remain challenging, and expectations will be missed.