Proposed Bluffton noise law would limit outdoor music

dburley@islandpacket.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Outdoor music in Bluffton could soon be played more softly and quietly and end earlier in the evening, a prospect that excites some Old Town residents but could trigger dissent among Calhoun Street restaurants and bars.

A proposed amendment to the town's noise ordinance would limit how loud and how long music could be played outdoors on private property. It would also prohibit yelling, shouting or other noise "plainly audible" from a next-door property or street.

The amendment stems from several months of discussion among Town Council, staff, Old Town business owners, and some residents in the historic district who are angered by what they call excessively loud outdoor music and late-night noise on Calhoun Street.

The proposal will be discussed at Town Council's meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall, 20 Bridge St.

Residents who have fought against the noise said Monday they were encouraged by the proposal.

On the other hand, a Calhoun Street restaurant that holds outdoor music events in the summer encouraged people on its Facebook page to attend the meeting and speak out.

"It's been hard to find a compromise," Councilwoman Karen Lavery said Monday. "We don't want businesses to fail; we want a robust downtown. But at the same time, people have a right to their privacy."

Under the amendment, outdoor noise would be banned before 10 a.m., after 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and after 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Current law prohibits such noise after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and after midnight Friday and Saturday.

The amendment would require businesses to register for outdoor entertainment as part of their business license. Those without the outdoor license would be restricted to six outdoor events per year with a special-events permit approved by the town.

During hours that noise is allowed, it could not be "plainly audible" from an adjacent property or street. Plainly audible is defined as any sound other than "normal unaided human conversation."

A Bluffton police officer investigating the noise "need not determine the title of a song, specific words, or the artist performing the song," the amendment says. Hearing bass would be sufficient.

Town manager Anthony Barrett said the amendment was drafted to be "easy to understand, reasonable and enforceable."

"I believe the staff met this goal with the proposed changes to the ordinance," he wrote in an email. "Whether the council agrees this meets community needs or not, we will find out tomorrow evening."

Paige Camp, one of a handful of Old Town residents who has protested the din, said she was impressed with the proposed measure.

"It looks like a good compromise for everybody," she said. "They didn't (ban) amplified music completely, but if the music has to stay within property boundaries, that's pretty close."

Camp said she thinks the boundaries give police officers a measurable tool to enforce the law. Currently, officers use their own discretion to decide whether noise is unusually loud, according to town ordinance.

"The way the law was written before, it was hard for them to do anything about" the noise, she said. "Now, it's very clear. If they hear it at these certain spots, then they can go tell them to turn it down."

Violators could be ordered to leave the property, and businesses that are repeat offenders could lose their licenses for outdoor dining, entertainment or music, the proposal says.

Last year, there were 53 noise complaints in Old Town through November, but very few written violations, according to Bluffton Police Department statistics.

Three residents accounted for 42 percent of those complaints, statistics show. About 45 percent of the complaints were directed at the Old Town Dispensary, a tavern on Calhoun Street.

Attempts Monday to reach Dispensary owner Thomas Viljac were unsuccessful.

Another Calhoun Street restaurant that also received complaints took to social media Monday to encourage people to "preserve outdoor music."

Vineyard 55 posted the town's proposed amendment on its Facebook page and asked residents to attend Tuesday's council meeting to "demonstrate how much we enjoy outdoor music while showing our support for the restaurants of Old Town."

Emily Whitten, a bartender at the restaurant, said she did not think the amendment's limited hours for outdoor music would harm business. Instead, she said, the restaurant wanted to "keep our live music alive, but we'll do it in the most respectful manner. We realize business is geared toward locals, and we'll do our best to accommodate everyone."

Commenters on Vineyard's post spoke out against the rule change, calling it "pathetic," "insane" and "outrageous."

However, no law will be written Tuesday, Councilwoman Lavery pointed out. If council approves the proposal, a second reading with public comment would be scheduled for next month.

"Whatever we come up with, I'd like to try it out for six months to see what works and go from there," she said.

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