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City Council allows loophole for some outdoor music venues

Friday, April 24, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Austin City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance Thursday that makes it easier for certain restaurants to avoid the 70 decibel limit currently on the books for outdoor music. The changes would waive fees and expedite a permit review for restaurants in the downtown entertainment district to change their permitted use from restaurant to cocktail lounge. The distinction would allow “lawfully permitted outdoor music venues” to crank up the music to 85 db.


Fred Nelson, owner of Freddie’s Place on South First Street, outside the downtown area, took issue with the original ordinance, passed on February 26, which has forced his restaurant to cancel all of its forthcoming shows. Nelson said he has legally hosted music outdoors at Austin restaurants for more than 25 years and has never been cited for a noise violation.


He pointed out the “hastily passed” February ordinance would effectively reduce the allowable decibel levels for restaurants like Freddie’s Place from 85 to 70, a virtually impossible requirement for live music. “It doesn’t seem like anyone with the city has any understanding of what decibel levels are,” Nelson said. He said he spent an afternoon on the corner of Bouldin and Elizabeth streets and measured decibels of passing traffic.


“Every time a Cap Met bus went by the decibels were 93,” he told Council, while city trucks were even louder. Nelson opined, “If ordinance 28 was such a good and necessary law, why do we need to create a loophole less than two months later? The reason is (the ordinance) was not thought out.” He said Thursday’s rush was compounding a mistake and called for a moratorium on the noise ordinance until new rules could be crafted.


Nelson said that the two entertainment districts were exempted from the 70 db limit with a few extra words added. “I don’t understand why a couple more words couldn’t be thrown in for the rest of us who were impacted by this.”


Council Member Mike Martinez recognized the work of the Live Music Task Force, but acknowledged, “there still are some issues that need to be addressed and Freddie’s is one of them.” He said he had spoken with Nelson and “we’re absolutely committed to working with him and any other venue that’s affected.” Martinez also stressed that the city had to make sure “we did this appropriately,” and while the city may be the Live Music Capital, “it doesn’t mean that you can plug in and play anywhere anytime you want. I certainly realize there are other factors that create noise that go above 70 db, including talking right now on the microphone, but we can do this appropriately.” 


One distinction that seemed to cause confusion was whether or not a cocktail lounge permit required an establishment to have liquor make up 100 percent of their sales. Staff responded that cocktail lounges could operate with up to 100 percent of their sales as alcohol, but it was not required. It may be more complicated than that however.


Council Member Randi Shade said, “I think we’re moving in the right direction.” She asked staff how many more restaurants aren’t having their needs met and Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards said 13 of 17 affected restaurants would be able to switch to cocktail lounges. “I think it’s important for people to understand this has been really complicated,” Shade said.  Pointing out the efforts of staff, the Task Force, music professionals and neighborhoods she told the audience, “When we get emails that suggest that we’re trying to choke live music, I think that’s really an unfair characterization of all the people that have been so involved in this process.”

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