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Council OKs music permit ordinance

Friday, March 13, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The City Council unanimously approved a measure Thursday instituting new procedures for venues hoping to obtain a live music permit, despite objections from the owner of Guero’s Restaurant, which features live music. The Live Music Task Force suggested the ordinance, which is aimed at reducing tensions between nightclub owners and surrounding residents as more bars and clubs outside of downtown apply for music permits.


Under the new regulation, the operator of a music venue will have to apply for a permit from the city to use amplifiers out doors. Before granting the permit, the city will consider surrounding land uses, the size if the venue, and any history of noise complaints. It also includes provisions for neighbors or neighborhood associations to appeal a permit, although language in the ordinance specifically limits that right along 6th Street, the Warehouse District, and Red River Street in the downtown area.


The new ordinance also states that the city “may not deny an initial permit for an outdoor music venue located within the footprint of a restaurant (general) use.” But if the property has four or more violations of the noise ordinance, the staff will be allowed to reject the permit.


Guero’s owner Rob Lippincott told the Council he was concerned the restrictions could effectively end live music performances on his restaurant’s patio. He expressed frustration at information he had received from city staff regarding which regulations applied to his business. But upon discussion with members of the Council, it became apparent that Lippincott’s concerns were not based on the changes to the ordinance approved on Thursday, but rather on long-standing definitions within the city code.


The code differentiates between bars or nightclubs and restaurants. Establishments where the primary business is the sale of food have a lower noise threshold (70 decibels) than those designated as nightclubs or live music venues (85 decibels). “A car on Congress Avenue is higher than 70 decibels. Right now, with nothing going on, it’s still 72, 73 decibels at the property line,” Lippincott said. “So, if someone was in there with a microphone turned on, we’d be in violation.” Enforcing the 70-decibel limit, he concluded, would harm both the restaurant and the musicians. “We’re going to have to fire employees,” he told the Council. “You’re going to cause that to happen.”


Council Member Mike Martinez attempted to address Lippincott’s concerns. “I’m happy to work with you. Guero’s is a great place. It’s an institution for South Congress,” he said. “It’s about your use, that’s all. All you have to do is change your designated use to having a music venue, and you’ll be able to be right back. The code has always, from day one, been 70 decibels for restaurants.”


But Martinez assurance’s did not convince Lippincott. “It sounds like we’re in violation and have been for the past ten years,” he said. Changing the designated use for his restaurant, he predicted, would be time-consuming and expensive. “It sounds like a zoning change, change of use, probably another alcoholic beverage license. All three of those…just off the top of my head, that’s probably $50,000 worth of work. And I would probably be opposed on all of those things by the neighborhood association,” he said.


The Chair of the Live Music Task Force, which endorsed the new requirements, vowed to work with Lippincott and other venue owners to head off any problems. “I’ve got artists playing at his venue during SXSW, so I’m going to reach out to him today and make sure he somewhat understands what’s going on, and I sense his frustration,” said Paul Oveisi. “There are probably a dozen other venues that are scratching their heads right now and wondering if they can be open for SXSW because of this.”


The change did win public support from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which had been involved in the discussions over the new requirements. “I think this is a big step forward in improving the process, allowing the public to have some say in the process,” said ANC President Danette Chimenti. “Both the music community and the neighborhoods are supporting this, and that is a really big step.”

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