Trying To Hit the Right Note

City's sound ordinance back on front burner

(l-r) Kent Roth, Collin Ballard, Ben May, and the Austin Fire Department's Lt. John Ham review schematics at last week's open house.
(l-r) Kent Roth, Collin Ballard, Ben May, and the Austin Fire Department's Lt. John Ham review schematics at last week's open house. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last fall, the Austin Police Department stared down a difficult set of statistics. During the months of October and November, city 311 and 911 operators took nearly 160 noise complaint calls. Even in the live music capital of the world, excessive volume does not qualify for hotshot response. Still, "It had reached a crescendo where the number of complaints coming in about noise weren't adequately being addressed by APD," says APD Downtown Cmdr. John Romoser.

What followed was the sort of Sturm und Drang that some observers might argue was inevitable as soon as plans were filed for the first set of lofts along Red River Street: Four consecutive weekends of what Romoser characterizes as "proactive" police enforcement produced nearly 40 warnings and citations for various violations of city permits and sound regulations. In response, club honchos turned up at a meeting of the Austin Music Commission to complain (see "Live Music Lands on Police Radar," Dec. 30). Don Pitts, manager of the music division in the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, says he was "disappointed" in the police action. He notes that, though the effort did pick up some habitual offenders, some of the cited venues were proceeding as they had been for years – with such features as outdoor speaker setups for piped-in tunes. They "were more confused than ever before," he says.

In a city where the next huge music festival is perpetually around the corner, a crackdown on noise is never well-timed. But this one came just a month before Austin began issuing press releases to prepare venue owners for its annual March South by Southwest economic smorgasbord. What may be more troubling to Austin's many bar operators is the potential shift in tactics that the action may have signaled. In any case, the resulting confusion compounds – and highlights – an already difficult situation for both nightlife peddlers and the city's still-young music division: how to balance an evolving set of regulations, the needs of a major local business community, and the concerns of the various neighbors and businesses who are most directly affected by it all?

For the record, Romoser says that there has been no broader shift in APD enforcement. And, as he points out, citation figures dropped from 18 to 10 to nine to just two on the last weekend of stepped-up enforcement, the weekend of Dec. 17. On top of that, Romoser notes a decline in noise complaint calls from 72 in November to 44 in December. "I'd like to think that it all plays together," he says.

Still, Austin Music Commission chair and SXSW marketer Brad Spies worries about the future implications of the proactive approach. At the commission's January meeting, Spies told his colleagues that he'd spoken with Romoser. APD "changed their enforcement tactics for the sound ordinance," said Spies. "Whereas it used to be solely complaint-driven ... around Thanks­giving APD had a pair of officers that were out and actively enforcing the sound ordinance Downtown." Spies suggests that, even though the period of stricter enforcement has passed, it represents a shift in the way APD addresses noise issues. "This is a change in tactics," Spies affirmed in an interview later, "and it remains to be seen how it plays out."

However APD decides to enforce the regulations, which continue to be tweaked, bar owners can take comfort in at least one coming change. According to Pitts, on Feb. 20 – just in time for SXSW – Austin's 311 system will start giving callers an automated option for noise complaints. Those calls will be referred to Pitts' office for follow-up. Which is to say that a stick is being traded for a carrot. "We try to stay out of enforcement," says Pitts, who adds that his division tries to work with various parties to solve problems. "A lot of times we find that it's not the venue [complainants] think it was," he says.

Back to that question of balance: On Thursday, Jan. 19, city officials hosted an open house for parties interested in hosting a music event during SXSW. The goal, according to the press release, was to offer operators "more [information] about permitting, temporary events, amplified sound and other information for creating safer, successful SXSW events. ... The event is an informational session to help make the change in the sound permitting process easier on participants." The change it referred to was one of timing. Operators now have to turn in permit applications for temporary sound permits 21 days in advance for single-day events and a full month ahead of multiday gatherings. City officials say this should allow for better vetting of permits and venues, and fewer day-of or two-days-into enforcement visits.

Whatever the regulations – or whoever is enforcing them – most operators only want to keep straight what the city expects. C3 Presents Operations Manager Mike Walker came to the SXSW open house with a written list of questions. Though he notes that he thinks "it's getting better," and appreciates the advent of Pitts' office, whom he says he met for the first time at last week's event – he adds that the city offers "really no one person to go to."

"Right now, if you don't know that you have to go to the Fire Department, or you don't know you have to go to transportation or [planning] or whoever – if you don't know that, you are messed up," Walker continued. "It seems like every time you do an event, and you walk in these big rooms, and you have these big safety meetings and so forth, they start talking about stuff that was never on your radar."

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