'Vague' Bluffton noise ordinance hits sour note at meeting

dburley@islandpacket.comNovember 20, 2013 

Amplified outdoor music in Bluffton's Old Town Bluffton is a pleasure for some.

For others, it's a pain.

While business owners and some residents disagree over the need for such music on Calhoun Street, a town Planning Commission meeting Wednesday night made one thing clear: The town ordinance is out of tune.

"Looking at the (noise) ordinance, it seems it's very subjective," Commissioner Terry Hancock said.

More than 50 people packed Town Hall to discuss solutions to complaints about the noise, particularly outdoor music at night in the bars and restaurants along Calhoun Street.

"For some reason, restaurants have the idea that loud outdoor music creates a commercial advantage," Old Town resident Jacob Preston said.

Matt Jording, who co-owns Old Town Dispensary, a primary target of the complaints, said his restaurant has taken steps to appease nearby residents and control the volume.

The tavern has installed an insulated acoustic stage to soften noise and hired four employees as "keepers of the peace" to keep overexcited patrons in check, Jording said.

"Cornhole can definitely bring out the animal in some people," he said of the bag-throwing game played on the lawn at the bar.

Dispensary co-owner Thomas Viljac, who is the commission's chairman, recused himself from the discussion.

Much of Wednesday's discussion centered on what many called the ordinance's vagueness, which makes it difficult to enforce.

"Obviously I interpret the (noise ordinance) differently than the responding police officers who say they can do nothing to help until after hours," said Calhoun Street resident Paige Camp, who was among a dozen people speaking against amplified music.

The law prohibits loud outdoor noise after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and after midnight Friday through Saturday.

Bluffton Police officers cannot issue a citation before then, according to Sgt. Scott Chandler.

"Basically, we can only ask them to turn it down," he said.

In the last two years, the department has received more than 100 noise complaints, according to the statistics presented at the meeting.

In those instances, 83 percent didn't violate the current ordinance, Chandler said.

The ordinance does not specify acceptable decibel readings.

Instead it prohibits "excessive," "unnecessary" and "unusually loud" noise.

Chandler said the department is reviewing the ordinance and would consider using a decimeter reader.

Commissioner Josh Tiller agreed changes to the ordinance are needed, but wanted to be sure amendments cover the whole town -- not just Calhoun Street.

"Will noise from high school football be in violation if it's too late (at night)?" he asked.

Wednesday's meeting was the culmination of five months of complaints from Calhoun Street residents.

The topic was a primary issue in the recent council election, and several Old Town residents alluded to its importance as Bluffton continues to grow.

"This is not just a squabble between a few people," Jimmy McIntyre said Wednesday. "There's a wave that's coming. If we don't make decisions now to preserve Bluffton's charm, we're going to become a Myrtle Beach."

Town Council will discuss changes to the ordinance Dec. 10, Shawn Leininger, the town's assistant director of growth management, said.

Document: Noise survey for residents

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Survey: What do you think?

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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