Regulating the volume of music at bars that want to entertain customers and keeping downtown Macon residents who want some quiet time happy is a delicate dance.
Downtown supporters and those who are looking at ways to regulate the music don’t want either dance partner to get their toes stepped on.
Recently the issue came up at a Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission meeting when an application for an “event space” on Second Street was addressed. After a discussion with the applicant and with a residential property owner, the commission approved the application — as long as the event space is soundproofed and events end by midnight.
“The commission was kind of torn because they wanted to give this woman a chance to open a business, but they know that noise is an issue,” P&Z Executive Director Jim Thomas said. “So they asked staff to look at what could be done as far as regulating the noise, mainly from nightclubs and places that have amplified music.”
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Any kind of noise ordinance change would fall under the jurisdiction of the Macon-Bibb County Commission, so any regulation P&Z would come up with would be “narrowly focused,” Thomas said. “We can’t be the noise police for the county.”
The county’s noise ordinance is in effect from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, and 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. Friday and Saturday, according to the Macon-Bibb County code.
A violation happens if the noise is “readily audible in another home, residence, apartment or building in which the usual openings such as windows and doors are closed,” the code says.
Enforcing any regulation the zoning commission puts in place is another issue that will need to be addressed, Thomas said. Its inspection officers would need to have the equipment to measure decibel levels.
But Thomas agreed that if a resident is having a problem with loud music at 1 a.m., the resident is going to call the police, not a zoning officer.
“Well, that’s some of the details that will have to be worked out,” he said. “That’s one of the problems because they have language in Macon-Bibb’s ordinance that deals with noise, and so what we do can’t override what they do.”
Thomas and his staff have met with Josh Rogers, the president and CEO of NewTown Macon, and Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, for their input.
“We don’t have to open Pandora’s box to be able to solve what those noise limits should be and the hours we’re supposed to have quiet,” Rogers said. “We just need to define what quiet is.”
So far, the commission’s staff has done some research on how other cities have handled the issue.
For example, New York City puts a certain decibel level maximum for an adjoining building and then another decibel level “that’s something like seven more decibels than the ambient street noise 30 feet in front of the building as a maximum,” he said. “That’s just one way to do it. We’re trying to figure out if that makes sense for us or not.”
In some cities, it depends on who comes first when officials determine who is responsible for soundproofing, he said. If lofts are in place when a bar wants to move in next door, then it’s incumbent on the bar owner to put in the noise protection, and vice versa.
Any regulation approved wouldn’t affect existing entertainment businesses — they would be grandfathered in, Thomas said.
“We can’t apply those same requirements to existing situations, which doesn’t solve the current problems,” he said.
Rogers, Thomas and others plan to get together again in the coming days to go over the information gathered so far.
“I think one of the clear issues right now is we don’t have decibel limits,” Rogers said. “We’ve got hours when (music is supposed to be shut off), … but we don’t have an objective way to evaluate infractions to those hours. … The hour limits seem to be workable. Even the conflicts we’ve had previously between residents and clubs have been over excessive noise after those hours.”
Everyone involved in trying to balance the needs of nightclubs and residents agree on one thing, and that’s what the expectations should be.
“If you’re going to move downtown, you are surely going to have the expectation it’s going to be noisier than if you move to Wesleyan Woods,” Thomas said. “That’s just part and parcel of that urban lifestyle that you would have to deal with that. Somewhere in there is some kind of medium where we can all get along.”
Rogers was clear about what he doesn’t want to see happen.
“I don’t want an entertainment district and a residential district,” he said. “Those are awful — they don’t work,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep things totally mixed up and still keep everyone reasonably happy.
“We do finally have some Macon music happening. I want to have as many opportunities for somebody to get paid as possible because you don’t get great bands if there aren’t places to jam on Tuesday night for $100. We’ve just got to find that balance. And I’m still confident we will be able to do that. … We’ll figure it out.”