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Council expected to take up agent of change and entertainment licenses in March

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Regulations for live music venues throughout Austin appear to be changing both very quickly and remarkably slowly.

At Monday’s meeting of the city’s Music Commission, the dominant topic was the long-proposed “agent of change” principle that is intended to reduce legal friction between incompatible uses, such as music venues and residential development. That issue has been studied by city staff for close to two years and has now been tied to a parallel move that would give venues an entertainment license with only general restrictions on activity, with a gradual phase-in over 12 months.

Those efforts are moving slightly behind a slate of initiatives tied to the city’s Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus that is expected to reach City Council in February. City staff hopes the agent of change and entertainment license policy pieces can be put before Council in early March, following a series of community feedback sessions on the effects of clearly establishing the compliance expectations for venues and the communities located near them.

The friction between differing uses is currently playing out with a $1 million lawsuit filed by the Westin Austin Downtown hotel against the Nook Amphitheater, a neighboring music venue with sound levels that Westin officials say are disturbing guests, even though the venue hasn’t violated city noise limits.

The proposed agent of change measure, which was discussed but not voted on by the commission on Monday, would require new developments to acknowledge in writing upon plan submission to the city that they are aware of any differing uses within 600 feet and would accept responsibility for any impact from locating near those uses.

It would also require landlords to make new tenants aware of those situations and acknowledge in writing their understanding.

Alex Lopez, deputy director of Austin’s Economic Development Department, said the agent of change measure is intended for use throughout the city and would bring clarity to potential conflicts in the future as Austin continues to grow and increase in density. It would not, however, be retroactive and thus would have no bearing on the Westin/Nook dispute.

The entertainment license measure is intended to smooth out the requirements on music venues, which have to obtain an outdoor music permit and file a sound impact plan with the city.

The revised process would see that all venues that use live or recorded music as featured entertainment be required to secure an entertainment license. The associated fees would total at most $1,000 over a three-year period, possibly as low as $100.

The licensing requirement would allow city staff to get a firm handle on the total number of venues active in the city, with clearly defined rules on how licenses could be suspended or revoked for repeated sound or public safety violations.

Monitoring those venues would fall in part to new staff approved for the Economic Development Department tied to the official creation of a city nightlife initiative, which other cities, such as San Francisco, have implemented to keep their entertainment districts lively and economically prosperous, but also safe.

Both proposals were received warmly by commissioners, with some clarification sought on possible changes to the city’s sound ordinances that would limit the activities of some venues. Members of the public asked how the agent of change initiative would keep disruptive businesses from moving close to housing or hotel clusters.

Don Pitts, manager of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division, said the compliance requirements tied to the entertainment licenses would be the best tool to enforce city regulations on venues and keep the peace in situations in which differing uses occur in close proximity.

Photo by David R AustinTx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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