Greensboro council resurrects noise ordinance

by Eric Ginsburg

Apocalyptic zombie movies may have gained in popularity over the last year, but not everyone will be thrilled that Greensboro City Council is resurrecting the noise ordinance from the dead. After a controversial public battle over a revised ordinance that hinged on complaints from developer Roy Carroll aimed at Greene Street nightclub downtown, some council members say it is time to get stricter.

If things go as Mayor Robbie Perkins plans, Greensboro could drop its noise ordinance threshold from 75 decibels to 60 and ban amplified outdoor music after 11 p.m. Some council members said that last year’s revisions were implemented on a trial basis and said that continuing complaints and violations indicated a need to revisit the ordinance.

District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who does not represent downtown, took the lead on the issue and set a meeting between council members, Carroll, Greene Street Club and Syn & Sky, another downtown nightclub. Hoffmann said an 11 p.m. ban on amplified outdoor music “possibly does” make sense and said she supports a 60-decibel threshold similar to Raleigh or Charlotte.

Hoffmann added that Greenville, SC set its decibel threshold at 65 but said the downtown there “is structured differently.” Greene Street’s lawyer Norman Klick said Charlotte is making revisions after realizing 60-decibels was too restrictive.

There is much to consider and revise, the councilwoman said, including whether fabric over rooftop venues could decrease disturbances.

“This is a work in progress,” Hoffmann said. “From my point of view I never considered what we did last year as totally settled. We knew that we were going to come back and revisit it.”

The city is taking legal action against Greene Street and Syn & Sky for allegedly violating the noise ordinance, which sets a 75-decibel threshold limit for areas like downtown. The current ordinance imposes penalties after three citations. According to the city, Syn & Sky was cited twice in August and again in October of 2012 while Greene Street allegedly violated the ordinance in October, November and December last year.

If they continue to violate the ordinance they’re going to get shut down.’

Mayor Robbie Perkins

The city released a list of noise disturbance calls at the two clubs since the revised ordinance took effect in June and is reviewing whether the names or source of the complainants is public record. The list includes five noise complaints about Syn & Sky and 22 directed at Greene Street, but there weren’t noise complaints when Greene Street was cited Nov. 17 or when Syn & Sky was cited Oct. 25.

Syn & Sky co-owner Mike Carter said the club’s three citations were not related to decibel levels but other aspects of the ordinance. The first two, he said, were due to music being played outside a few minutes past the 2 a.m. cutoff, and the third violation was caused by a DJ talking on a microphone on the roof . The third incident came during A&T homecoming, Carter said, and the DJ was not a regular employee and wasn’t familiar with the noise ordinance rules.

Greene Street is counter-claiming the city, asserting that complaints amount to harassment and enforcement has been uneven. Carter said the owners of Syn & Sky are looking into their legal options.

“If they continue to violate the ordinance they’re going to get shut down,” Perkins said. “We’d much rather have them comply with whatever we put on the books and have more profitable business.”

Klick said the ordinance violates equal protection because the city exempted its own venues and said enforcement has been biased as evidenced by an e-mail from Chief Ken Miller that YES! Weekly uncovered last year suggesting clubs be cited every time there was a complaint.

“There are some issues with the whole way this has gone down,” Klick said. “When Greene Street built the rooftop they had the full blessing of the city. Five years later [the city’s] shutting them down. The evidence will show there’s been a lot of hindrance of Greene Street’s business.”

Klick said the club spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating its rooftop venue and that the city was actively involved in supporting it at the time.

“We’re not going to be pushed around by the city and a citizen who has direct access to the police chief and the city council,” Klick said, adding that the department was being used as a “private police force” for Carroll. “This is not Chicago and this is not 1950.”

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan said she is open to hearing other council members’ ideas on ordinance changes but said she couldn’t say yet whether she favors the changes Perkins is advocating. With warm weather on the way and people spending more time outdoors, Vaughan said it is time to revisit the ordinance because last year’s revisions aren’t working.

“I’m very disappointed in the clubs,” Vaughan said. “We gave them a really good ordinance, and for them not to follow it, I think, is a real slap in the face. From a club perspective I think it was the most liberal ordinance in the state of North Carolina and the fact that they couldn’t stay within those parameters is frustrating.”

Perkins said he does not expect the issue to raise as much controversy as it did a year ago, adding that club owners were “fine” with some of the more restrictive changes that were proposed.

“Their business is not great either,” he said. “The overall health of downtown is not good enough to sustain the clubs either. Their profitability is nowhere near what it was several years ago.”

The ordinance changes are necessary to create the downtown environment that will invite development like the proposed performing arts center and increased residential properties that could attract more retail, Perkins said.

“I don’t think anyone is going to spend millions of dollars in developing downtown until the issues surrounding clubs are dealt with,” Perkins said. “I don’t believe that downtown’s future will be centered around the club scene.”

Hoffmann said the meeting she initiated between the affected parties was the first time club owners and Carroll had sat down together and that it had gone “very well” and that she was hopeful for future meetings.

“My premise and thesis always is if people can sit down and meet each other on a face-to-face basis it takes some element of being the enemy away,” she said.

“I think we got some consensus at that meeting. It’s a matter of finding that mid point, wherever that is.”

One proposal from the meeting involved a monthly meeting with affected parties, Hoffmann said, adding that changes were necessary to attract downtown development.

“You can’t have a Wild West downtown in terms of nightlife where it begins to encroach upon or disturb the residential community downtown,” she said. “We’re just going to continue to look at this situation over the next few months. We continue to hear from people regarding noise levels and it’s not just two offenders and it’s not just one property owner or one building.”

Klick refuted the assertion that the meeting between the clubs, Carroll and the city went as well as Perkins and Hoffmann claimed.

“What’s being said publicly is not consistent with what is happening in other areas,” he said, adding that while the city was encouraging dialogue on one hand they were taking legal action on the other.

Hoffmann suggested that the young professional demographic might be “a prime business target” for rooftop venues to make money and avoid violating the ordinance. Middle-age and young professionals drink at places like Print Works, 1618, the O’Henry Hotel and the corner of Walker and Elam streets, she noted, and the councilwoman said places like Greene Street could also cater to that market.

“I think a young professional group of people are not so interested in being on a rooftop with amplified music at 75 decibels,” she said. “There may be an opportunity for different types of venues. You really look at who your audience is and the audience you’re attempting to attract.”

Klick challenged Hoffmann’s suggestion that Greene Street try and attract a different clientele that would be more suited for a wine bar.

“Some people, in my humble opinion, have lost touch,” Klick said. “Is what she’s saying that we should only tailor to young white males? Some politicians cater to those that they think can help them get reelected instead of doing the right thing.”

Government has no role in dictating who a venue attracts, he said, and encouraging a certain demographic was a “slippery slope.”

Carter said Syn & Sky was open to the proposed decibel-level changes but said 60 was a significant jump, but added that an 11 p.m. ban on outdoor amplified noise would crush his business.

“If something did go through and we had to shut off all music on our rooftop in the summertime, literally, that would shut us down,” he said. “The amount of the money we make up there [in the summer] carries us through the winter months.”

Carter, who said he proposed the idea of club owners and Carroll meeting so they could “sit down and talk like gentlemen,” said he doesn’t understand the proposed changes after so much time was spent crafting the ordinance revisions last year. The city’s framing of the issue, he said, has been misleading.

“They’ve said over and over it’s not just about Roy Carroll and Greene Street,” Carter said. “Clearly that is it.”

Vaughan said she has received calls from Greensboro residents who went downtown to restaurants or Triad Stage complaining that outdoor club music was “jarring.” One complaint, from someone leaving the Empire Room in the Elm Street Center, cited blaring vulgar lyrics from Syn & Sky’s rooftop.

“I think it probably is a First Amendment issue so maybe the way to address it is through the volume,” Vaughan said.

While lyrical content isn’t something the city could legislate, Vaughan said the coliseum dealt with a similar complaint by booking acts with explicit lyrics inside. Content was initially brought up last year by Carroll as the noise ordinance debates closed, saying explicit lyrics may be the next frontier of his crusade.