Restaurants rising: Up in arms over Tolbert's noise law
Charlottesville restaurants–- already hammered by chilly wintertime sales, zealous alcohol rules, and a nine-percent tax on all they sell–- have decided to rise up to fight the latest thing threatening their livelihood: a proposed noise ordinance that would limit nighttime restaurant noise to just 55 decibels, a sound level lower than a typical conversation.
"I really think we're being steam-rolled here," says Alan Katz, the music director for Coupe DeVille's and one of several speakers at City Council Tuesday night.
An Elliewood Avenue restaurant that features live music six nights a week, "Coupes" (as it's known to regulars) would, Katz said, be irreparably harmed by such an ordinance. "We need a break," Katz told the Council.
But according to some residents in the south-of-downtown area called Belmont, it's their neighborhood–- and their sleep–- which have recently begun suffering.
"There's a time and a place for everything," said Belmont resident Allison Ruffner, the lone speaker favoring the ordinance. "I don't think an area like this, a mixed-use district, is the place to explore how loud we can have music between eleven o'clock at night and two o'clock in the morning."
According to How Stuff Works, the decibel level of a typical conversation is 60 decibels, and Jim Baldi, the owner of Bel Rio restaurant, said that a man with a decibel meter found that merely opening the door to the City Council chambers registered 62 decibels.
"My vent hood makes more noise than that," said Wes Wright, owner of Belmont Barbecue, which doesn't "have a dog in that fight" because he closes at 8pm, but noted that someone called the police around 7pm one night when there was an acoustic duo on the patio at nearby La Taza. "I'm asking you to be realistic," said Wright.
Opponents of the ordinance suggest that the City already went too far when, in 2008, it created a citywide ban on over-75 decibel noise. By the following summer, several City Councilors were wringing their hands in frustration when they realized that they'd inadvertently banned African drumming on the Downtown Mall.
The problem for such places as the Corner–- and particularly downtown Belmont, which has witnessed a renaissance in the past decade–- is that some residents of the surrounding houses claim to have moved in before the hijinx began.
And what hijinx. On a letter bearing the names of 15 Belmontians, resident Kimber Hawkey recently sent city officials photographs of women at Bel Rio adorned only in panties and pasties.
So Charlottesville finally gets a strip club? Well, according to those who viewed the show, curvaceous females were evident, but the Christmas night performance–- orchestrated by musician Christian Breeden–- was built more on satire than titillation.
"I can see how the saber-rattlers might call that something immoral," says Breeden. "But those girls, in my humble opinion, are artists."
The girls are members of a Richmond troupe called "Varietease," which joined Breeden, whose band The Dirty Horse has the regular Thursday night gig at Bel Rio, on December 25.
"That was just a brainstorm," says Breeden, "to do something special because so few places were open."
Back at the ordinance hearing, audio engineer/musician Jamal Millner noted that he was speaking at at least 55 decibels, and longtime musician Bennie Dodd noted that freight trains pass by when he plays at Coupes. "Now, that's some serious noise," said Dodd.
Sound company owner Jerry Mallory pointed out that his typical measurements of conversations run 61-79 decibels and that his own speech to Council hit 70. After asking the assembled crowd to fall silent, he said the silence actually measured 55.
Nonetheless, Councilor Kristin Szakos urged a 55-decibel limit, but Councilor David Brown moved to change the limit at 60 decibels, limiting the ban to amplified music, and restricting the ordinance to the Belmont and Fry's Spring neighborhoods.
All four present Councilors (Mayor Dave Norris was absent until shortly after the discussion) voted to move the ordinance forward. It will get a final vote at an upcoming Council meeting.
In other actions at the February 16 meeting, Council discussed creating a new "neighborhood advocate" position, agreed to purchase and then lease for 40 years a property on Fourth Street as a homeless shelter, agreed to put out an RFP for getting a study on raising the Ragged Mountain Dam, urged the state not to adjust its school funding formula, and named Assistant City Manager Maurice Jones Acting City Manager effective April 13.