If the past is prologue, Bluffton officials won't find it easy to address complaints from residents in and around Calhoun Street about noise, specifically from amplified outdoor music.
But that doesn't mean they shouldn't try. It is up to the council to come up with rules -- supported by appropriate police enforcement -- that recognize residents' rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, while also recognizing a business' rights to engage in legal commerce.
Town Council got an earful last Tuesday from residents who say loud music is disturbing their peace. The town has a noise ordinance, but from the residents' perspective, it's not working.
For years, town officials wrestled with complaints about outdoor amplified music at Pepper's Porch restaurant. Early on, in 2002, it passed a very complex noise ordinance, complete with specific decibel levels at specific times in specific areas of town in an attempt to address the problem.
Even after the noise ordinance became law, mediation efforts went on for several more years between the restaurant and its neighbors, who continued to complain. The town hired a sound engineer at a cost of $3,000 to come up with solutions, such as sound walls and berms. A private agreement eventually reached between nearby residents and the restaurant's owners still didn't satisfy. Former Town Councilman Jacob Preston, one of the residents who asked Town Council for help last week, was involved in the mediation efforts and should know all too well how difficult settling such differences can be.
In 2009, the town's noise ordinance was changed again and the specific decibel levels dropped. Then Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister said the old ordinance, requiring police to use a noise meter to determine whether the law was being broken, was difficult to enforce and didn't take into account the disturbing thump of a deep bass. The ordinance allows officers to use their judgment in writing tickets.
But the public comments at last week's council meeting suggest it's time to take on noise again. Several residents suggested a change that would ban amplified music outdoors without a special events permit. That could limit the number of times a week, a month or a year that residents have to put up with loud outdoor music.
If an officer's request isn't resulting in music getting turned down, then Town Council should give them the tools it takes to do it. Better yet, they should try to come up with rules so that residents don't have to keep calling to complain and officers don't have to keep responding to those calls. Make it incumbent upon the business or special event operator to keep the noise down in the first place.
Mayor Lisa Sulka said council would work with Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds to see that the current ordinance is enforced and said she wanted the noise and parking issues -- also a major concern -- to be a priority for the council.
There was another suggestion last week that ought to be taken to heart: "We need to reclaim that standard of what it means to be a good neighbor," said Susan Saxon, who lives on Church Street, just off Calhoun Street.
Is amplified outdoor music really necessary for a business to prosper? Is it necessary so many nights of the week? Can't customers enjoy music without disturbing neighbors? What is the point of music so loud it's generating ill will in the community?
The Pepper's Porch imbroglio taught us there is no easy path to a solution. But residents and business owners in Old Town Bluffton, which touts its mix of homes and enterprises, have to figure out how to co-exist. The term "mixed use" often emphasizes the commercial aspect of this type of zoning. The residential aspect must be taken into consideration, too.