"I'm really upset," says Black Market Moto Saloon owner Matteus Frankovich, "I thought a reasonable compromise was worked out, but City Council just wiped it off the table."
The Moto Saloon as seen from the LunchBox.
Across the street from one of the more quiet businesses in town, tombstone retailer W. A. Hartman Memorials on East Market Street, a neighborhood kerfuffle over music came to an end recently when Charlottesville City Council laid to rest the Black Market Moto Saloon's bid for a music hall permit.
The decision followed a 5-1 nod for a special use permit by the Charlottesville Planning Commission, based on a city staff report that determined a music hall would have no substantially adverse effects on the neighborhood. As one long-time Commission member told the Hook, such near-unanimous recommendations are "rarely" rejected.
So what happened?
Shortly after opening in January, Moto Saloon owner Matteus Frankovich began hosting music in the light industrial zone space at the corner of Meade and East Market without a special use permit, a flouting of the law that prompted some neighbor outrage, a city crack-down, and temporary closure of the venue. Ironically, according to police reports, almost all the noise complaints in the area stemmed from noise at the nearby LunchBox, which also briefly hosted unpermitted music events, but it was the Moto Saloon that would take the brunt of the neighborhood's wrath.
Frankovich eventually applied for the permit and took his case to the Charlottesville Planning Commission, along with 500 signatures on a pro-music petition, as well as a room full of supporters. The city staff report showed that a music hall at the fledgling business would have no adverse impact on traffic, parking, economic development, historic preservation, housing availability, or peace and quiet.
Still, to appease neighbors who had concerns about noise and disruptive behavior, staff recommended a host of restrictions, including no music on Sundays and Mondays, no music after 10:30pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and not after 12:30am on Friday and Saturday. And no outdoor gigs past 7pm.
Whats more, Frankovich, who lives in the neighborhood, says he had already installed soundproofing on the interior and would stand outside during shows to ensure sound levels were reasonable.
City Council, however, shot down the request on October 1 in a 4-1 vote.
Councilor Kathy Galvin, an architect who specializes in neighborhood design and planning, says she "respectfully disagreed" with the Planning Commission and that after "countless emails and interviews with neighborhood residents on both sides of the issue" she determined that live music was not "harmonious with the existing patterns of use in the neighborhood."
Bill Emory, a Woolen Mills resident and former Commissioner (and Hook contributor), asserts the PC was perhaps too quick to craft a compromise, instead of interpreting the zoning.
"I think they may have been influenced by the earnest young citizens in the room," says Emory.
Fellow resident Robin Hanes applauds Council for "taking a stand" for long-time residents. "Amplified music and client behaviors stirred up after drinking and carousing should have more distance from a neighborhood," she says.
Frankovich points out that he had letters of support from dozens of Woolen Mills residents, who were delighted by what they saw as a neighborhood amenity.
"I'm really upset," says Frankovich, "I thought a reasonable compromise was worked out, but City Council just wiped it off the table."
Frankovich contends that the reasons given for the denial, especially from Galvin, were "subjective" and that a "small interest group" drove the decision.
Woolen Mills residents do have a history of fighting for what they believe is right. In April, Hanes was arrested and charged with trespassing when she tried to block the removal of a Norway spruce on private property, a protest against the removal of six "iconic" trees for the development of a new single-family residence. Woolen Mill-ites have also battled development, zoning issues, and the powerful Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority over a stinky sewage facility in their midst, one of the main reasons why the RWSA recently chose to build a new $40 million pumping facility.
Although a pre-vote public decibel test conducted by police found that noise levels fell far below the 75-decibel allowance, Galvin cites the "disruptive" period of time that the Moto Saloon hosted unpermitted music as the "full, live impact of the proposed use."
Dave Norris, the lone City Council supporter of the permit, disagrees. He says the name gave some uninformed neighbors the impression that the Moto Saloon was a menacing "biker bar."
"As anyone who has been there knows it's just not that kind of place," says Norris. "The passing cars at that intersection are louder than the Moto Saloon ever was."
Norris notes that his fellow Councilors were not even willing to defer a final decision and offer the Moto Saloon a six-month trial period because there was simply so much "bad blood" between the owner and some neighbors that had "poisoned the well for a real conversation."
Perhaps Frankovich's public relations blunders doomed him. Galvin blames Frankovich for "polarizing" a "once harmonious" neighborhood by initially violating the terms of his Certificate of Occupancy with the music, and Woolen Mills resident Bill Landford says Council made the right call.
"While I would love to have live music in a responsible neighborhood pub, regrettably, this was not done by the Moto Saloon," says Lankford.
Emory asserts that Frankovich should feel fortunate that he didn't receive more official complaints during the time he was operating illegally. As for proof that the Moto Saloon created a noise problem, that's hard to document.
According to information from Charlottesville Police Lt. Gary Pleasants, police had been called to the Moto Saloon only once for a noise complaint, and upon arrival they discovered that the "business was not even open." There was, however, one call for a disturbance that broke out and another to help clear the building because it exceeded its occupancy limit.
Asked for evidence about disruptive noise, Councior Galvin declined to name incidents, explaining instead that there were "multiple reasons" for denying the permit. Among them: that a music hall sets a bad precedent for the neighborhood, that parking would become a problem, and that a music hall isn't aligned with the comprehensive plan.
"Councilor Galvin certainly spun her web of zoning parlance," says Frankovich, "but this issue was pretty straight-forward. A sound test conducted by the police and a lack of complaints determined there wasn't a noise problem. And special use permits like this are designed to encourage businesses like mine."
According to Emory, however, the official sound test didn't capture the booming bass typical of a concert. Frequent pedestrian/biker Emory says he would often stroll by during music events.
"I could still hear the music when I arrived at my house three-tenths of a mile to the east," says Emory. "And I have bad hearing."
This isn't the first time that this Council has rejected its Planning Commission's recommendations, and according to its vice chair, reversal has become a "trend." Earlier this year, for example, the Commission approved a fraternity house expansion and unanimously recommended a small apartment building near Rose Hill Drive next door to a much larger apartment complex, but Council denied both applications.
"Council rejecting PC recommendations are unusual, especially by big vote margins," says former PC member Bill Lucy, who calls the rejection of the unanimous vote on the Rose Hill apartment building a "curious" decision.
"It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues," says PC vice chair Dan Rosensweig, who says that Council rejections of unanimous or near-unanimous PC decisions have been "rare" during his four years on the Commission.
The PC, of course, serves at the pleasure of City Council, providing Council– which has Mayor Satyendra Huja in addition to Galvin as a design planner-turned-Councilor– with information to make sound decisions.
"If the trend does continue, that is perfectly fine," says Rosensweig. "However, there may come a point at which Council should elect to redefine roles and reassume some of the responsibilities it has delegated."
As for Frankovich, don't expect him to walk quietly into the sunset.
"We call ourselves a great city of the arts," he says, "but our city government is unwilling to make a small compromise, to take a little risk, and live up to that."