Sound and fury: After more than a year, Noise Ordinance Task Force more divided than ever – San Antonio Report

After more than a year of work on a potential new noise ordinance for San Antonio, business owners and residents remain at odds over how to resolve persistent noise complaints. Some residents bemoan lax enforcement of the existing ordinance while businesses are concerned that onerous new regulations could impact their profit margins.

During an Oct. 17 online public meeting of the Noise Ordinance Task Force, Development Services Department Director Michael Shannon recognized that the process has produced more division than consensus.

“With such a divided … task force and/or just overall consistent lack of consensus, we’re going to have to put our heads together” just to find a way to move forward, Shannon said.

With no public meetings currently scheduled, the fate of the 15-member committee, along with the ordinance it was convened to reconsider, is unclear. The task force is charged with sending its recommendations to City Council, which will make the ultimate determination on changes to the noise ordinance.

A key sticking point is a set of provisions in a final report by the Austin-based consultant hired to help draft a plan to resolve escalating noise complaints.

Good Kind or ‘bad actor?’

The Aug. 24 Sound Music Cities “Community Sound Managementreport recommends a system under which businesses using outdoor amplified sound equipment — for live bands and DJs, for instance — must apply for a permit through the Development Services Department (DSD) and meet standards for hours of operation and decibel levels.

Businesses that repeatedly violate the noise ordinance — “bad actors,” in the parlance of the task force — would be subject to visits by city employees to assess the impact of noise on the neighborhood and make recommendations for improvements.

One wrinkle in the proposed permitting system particularly rankled Chef Tim McDiarmid, owner of The Good Kind Southtown and the Ivy Hall event space on South St. Mary’s Street.

On page 12 of the Sound Music Cities report, a provision recommends “no operation of amplified sound equipment within 100 feet of residentially zoned property unless … written agreements have been secured with owners and tenants of nearby property and affected neighborhood organizations.”

Were that provision enacted, “we would go bankrupt,” McDiarmid said, bemoaning neighbors who she said repeatedly call in noise complaints despite her efforts to comply with the current ordinance.

The Good Kind in Southtown opened in 2017.
The Good Kind Southtown and Ivy Hall are bordered by residential buildings in the King William Neighborhood. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The current noise ordinance limits sound from any residence or business to no more than 70 decibels during daytime hours, with a limit reduction to 63 decibels after 10 p.m. weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekend nights.

McDiarmid said she learned of noise concerns in the neighborhood while in the process of establishing her business. She purchased the same decibel meters used by the city to train her staff to make sure noise was under the limit.

Since The Good Kind opened in February 2019, officers of the San Antonio Police Department have responded 39 times to noise disturbance calls. No citations were issued. According to a police department spokesperson, responding officers first determine whether sound might be above the limit, then either ask the business to lower the sound or head to their substation to retrieve decibel meters and issue citations if a violation is clear.

During a pilot program period instigated by the task force over a six-month period starting in October 2021, DSD code enforcement officers were sent out in place of SAPD officers. McDiarmid contended that her business was visited multiple times during the pilot program but was never cited.

Measurement matters

Several residential properties border the boundary of McDiarmid’s 1-acre business. Aside from a past issue with a neighbor who has since moved, McDiarmid said adjoining property owners coexist peacefully with her business.

However, one resident of the King William neighborhood who lives two blocks away characterized The Good Kind as “an egregious violator of the current city noise ordinance … routinely over the ordinance decibel limit.”

Asked for proof of the business’s violations, the neighbor, who complained during the Oct. 17 public task force meeting, offered only anecdotal evidence.

When it comes to enforcing a noise ordinance, the type of decibel meter and measurement matters. The original noise ordinance specifies standard dBA measurement, an abbreviation referring to sound in the range of ordinary human hearing. The Sound Music Cities recommendations include the use of dBC measurements when necessary for the permitting process, which are more effective for low-frequency sounds such as thumping bass.

A recent visit to The Good Kind during a Sunday evening “dance party” event showed measurements averaging roughly 66 dBA at the back fence, and less than 60 dBA at the side fence on the north side of the property. The average measurement of 67 dBA at the public sidewalk on St. Mary’s Street was repeatedly exceeded by passing traffic.

Using a free decibel meter app on an iPhone, dBC measurements were higher than dBA measurements but averaged less than 70 dBC overall.

McDiarmid emphasized that she has worked to maintain her business at sound levels neighbors can live with but warned that the Sound Music Cities recommendations — which if adopted would apply citywide — give too much weight to residents.

“They don’t all really care about the whole city. They care about what’s next to them,” she said.

Tim McDiarmid, owner of The Good Kind.
Tim McDiarmid, owner of The Good Kind. Credit: Courtesy / Guillermo Rosas

Facts over emotion

Sound Music Cities lead consultant Don Pitts said if implemented in the right spirit, its Community Sound Management plan should help reduce nuisance calls. The city must act as a “neutral arbitrator of compliance,” he said, assessing each problem situation as it arises and dealing with it accordingly, whether that means working with businesses to make less of a negative impact on their neighbors or educating residents on acceptable sound levels.

Community Sound Management recommendations include use of a Sound Impact Plan that was key to Pitts’ success in Austin, where noise complaints were reduced by 74% during his tenure as director of the Music Office in the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department. The Sound Impact Plan requires site visits for data collection, conversations with affected residents and businesses, and recommendations for effectively reducing ambient outdoor noise.

“It lets the conversations be based on facts and not on emotion,” Pitts said. Progress is made in changing habits and mindsets on both sides of the issue, he said, and in neutrally assessing the actual impact of sound on a given area.

The city must “use this policy to create realistic expectations on both sides,” he said, and enforcement should come into play when necessary.

If a business is routinely creating outdoor sound above acceptable decibel levels and beyond time limits, “having a clear cut off time is the only thing that really works,” he said.

Pitts said a permitting system can help improve understanding on all sides of the issue, protecting businesses from nuisance neighbors as much as improving quality of life for residents. The recommendation for written agreements that bothered McDiarmid would also include neighbors who support the business, he said, and are meant only to apply to extending hours and noise limits beyond what is currently allowed.

If the policy is correctly implemented, he said, the business versus resident mentality will subside. “You’ll shed a lot of this mentality and get away from the us-versus-them.”

Back to square one?

The possibility exists that San Antonio might simply keep its current noise ordinance. Several comments from both residents and business owners during the Oct. 17 meeting supported such a notion.

“It’s always a possibility to either change it or leave it as is,” said DSD spokeswoman Ximena Copa-Wiggins.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) was an original sponsor of the May 2021 Council Consideration Request that spurred the creation of the Noise Ordinance Task Force. “The reason we put this together was not to change the ordinance, but see if we needed to change the ordinance,” Perry said.

One possibility to move forward would be additional code compliance officers dedicated to noise enforcement, shifting responsibility from SAPD officers to DSD officers, Perry said.

Pitts disagrees with the emphasis on enforcement and said problem-solving should be the focus, with a new city department similar to the Entertainment Services Group he helped create in Austin to perform assessments and improve relations between residents and businesses.

Aaron Peña owns The Squeezebox music club on the St. Mary’s Strip. Peña said his impression is that the task force and pilot program have proved that most businesses are in compliance, an assertion backed up by former SA2020 president and CEO Molly Cox, who dug into statistics compiled by the task force during its 24-week pilot program.

Noise complaints regarding businesses made up only 14% of calls to police, two-thirds of which did not result in violations.

Cox commented in a Twitter thread that, while some businesses have been serial violators, they number “less than 5.”

Task force member Sam Aguirre of the Tobin Hill Community Association was among residents declaring support for sending the Sound Music Cities recommendations to City Council, as a framework for a new or modified ordinance.

“We love our businesses. We love the vibrancy of the inner city. But we do believe there should be a balance” between the concerns of residents and businesses, Aguirre said.

Peña said he’d prefer to see the ordinance stay as is, with enforcement when necessary.

“If the basic sound ordinance is being enforced, I don’t really see the reason to change anything,” he said.

Editor’s note: SAPD confirmed that the central substation servicing the King William district uses Extech Digital Sound Level Meters models 407732 and 407736. The Good Kind uses an older Extech model. Sound tests by the San Antonio Report employed a free Decibel Meter Sound Detector app for iPhone.

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