After complaints about nightlife, Beaufort leaders consider noise ordinance

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMarch 30, 2014 

Patrons hang out on the patio at Panini's on the Waterfront on Bay Street in downtown Beaufort.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Delayna Earley Buy Photo

John North says city officials' visions of a Beaufort downtown full of residents who live, work and play in an urban environment are all well and good.

But those visions aren't possible unless people are able to sleep at night, he said, and the noise from some downtown bars and restaurants makes a good night's rest difficult.

"We're not sure what we are going to do. We might not move downtown," said North, who was considering making his suite above Regions Bank on Bay Street his main residence. "We've discovered you need to sleep to live."

The city's noise ordinance is under scrutiny by City Council and was the focus of a work session Tuesday that drew downtown residents and business owners.

"The Norths should not be blamed for doing exactly what City Council wants to happen," Historic Beaufort Foundation executive director Maxine Lutz said of their desire to live downtown. "They own that building. They have a right to live in that building."

Beaufort Police Department spokeswoman Hope Able said nine complaints have been made for the Bay Street area -- seven by North, one anonymous and one by an officer -- since the beginning of February. None were deemed violations, she said.

North wasn't the only resident saying late-night music is a problem. Wallace Scarborough lives several blocks down Bay Street, between Church and Harrington streets, and said downtown music wakes him up.

"Don't I have a right to peace and quiet in our neighborhoods?" he asked.

City attorney Bill Harvey cautioned City Council to be prudent if it considers a change to the noise ordinance.

"What we have before us has been tweaked and fine tuned over the last 34 years to accommodate by and large the businesses facing the water to allow them to have music, while still protecting ... the rights of the residents who were in downtown at the time," he said.

One provision of the ordinance in particular -- subsection (a) -- has been tested in state and federal court during lengthy and expensive litigation centering around the street preachers who were downtown fixtures in the 1990s, he said. Everything in the ordinance relates to that section, Harvey said, adding, "I would not recommend we throw out the baby with the bath water."

The key part of the subsection says, "It shall be unlawful for any person to willfully disturb any neighborhood or business in the City by making or continuing loud and unseemly noises."

"Willful" is crucial to that sentence and the issuance of violations, Harvey said.

"There has to be a willful violation," he said. "So therefore, whoever is making the noise has to be told that someone is complaining."

The ordinance also outlines a "Nighttime Music District" on the southern side of Bay Street, between Carteret and Charles streets.

Loud music or other noise in outdoor areas -- that is, music or noise that is "substantially audible" past 50 feet -- is sufficient proof of a noise violation, according to the ordinance. It further states that sound exceeding 85 decibels at the property line at any time is a violation.

The ordinance further restricts loud music or noise between 1 and 7 a.m. seven days a week, and between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday.

Beyond the overarching rules, however, the ordinance does not outline specific restrictions for Friday and Saturday nights. That's intentional, Harvey said, to allow for amplified music and bands.

Paul Thompson is owner of Panini's on the Waterfront, one of the businesses North singled out. Panini's has a back patio where music is played.

Thompson said the restaurant has a decimeter, is cognizant of sound levels and has taken steps to not violate the ordinance.

However, as several members of council and the audience said, weather affects the way sound travels. That makes it difficult to determine how much of a problem sound is.

"The only way of enforcement is giving a unit of measure at a specific distance or property line," Thompson said.

Andina Foster owns Hemingway's Bistro, which North also said is too noisy. She said the bulk of her business is late-night, and noise from patrons is to be expected.

"If you're going to live in that area, that's what you need to expect from that area," she said.

Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce board president Stephen Murray urged City Council to not clamp down on businesses downtown any more than necessary.

"With all due respect to the Norths, I feel like they're the folks building their home in Habersham and complaining about the planes going overhead," he said. He added, somewhat jokingly, "... I'd like to propose a sign at the entrance (to downtown) that says 'The noise you hear is the sound of tax revenue.'"

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