Rocking the rules away

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Nobody’s been rocking Charlottesville as long as the party band leader Bennie Dodd. So when Bennie Dodd raises his hand at a meeting about Charlottesville music, you listen. “I remember years ago, back in 1976. The Mall didn’t even have anybody,” said Dodd. “We could play out of Stacy’s Music, and you wouldn’t even see anybody.”

At a meeting last week at CitySpace, Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert struck a compromise with the local music community to make hosting music by-right for businesses—potentially doing away with the expensive process of applying for a special usepermit. But not so fast: The plan goes before the Planning Commission March 8, and City Council in April.

In the intervening 25 years, zoning code has struggled to keep up with where music is played, even as music in those places has became a part of local identity for musicians like Dodd. That rift set the stage for a CitySpace discussion last week, where the city’s lead planner outlined a proposal that would make hosting music by right for local businesses. In short, most businesses that have been hosting music may be able to keep hosting, no special use permit necessary.

That doesn’t mean Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert is talking about a free-for-all. It’s just that in meetings over the past month, representatives from the local music community convinced him that, given existing laws that regulate capacity, alcohol and noise, there may be no need for another layer of confusing rules.

As the law stands, many businesses that host music must apply for a special use permit—the application fee alone costs $1,500. (Four businesses currently hold such permits: The Jefferson Theater, The Southern, The Paramount and Club 216.) Bailee Elizabeth, a local musician who helped start a blog to track changes to music laws on the city level, said she thought the city should refund those fees. Tolbert said the city would consider it.

Tolbert says the city tried to deal with excessive noise at Belmont restaurant Bel Rio without hurting the music community. “It wasn’t that simple,” Tolbert said at a meeting last month at Random Row Books. “What we tried to do…is to say that those places where [music] is purely incidental to the meal are restaurants,” like Hamiltons’ and Aberdeen Barn. “Those places where you go to listen to the music, they’re not. They’re the restaurant/music halls.” But those definitions fall short when it comes to, say, C’ville Coffee, a restaurant that happens to unobtrusively host music three or four nights a week.

If the Planning Commission accepts the proposal next month, and City Council adopts it in April, it won’t matter. (Tolbert says that Belmont watering hole Beer Run, about which the city has received noise complaints, may be the only restaurant that will have to apply for a special use permit to host live music.)

But throw Belmont into the picture, and things get a little fuzzy. Adam Frazier owns The Local, which hosts the regular open mic C’ville Songwriters and regular Wednesday acts. But the 55dB noise restriction in that neighborhood is effectively as good as a music ban. He said that repeat noise violations at the erstwhile restaurant/night club Bel Rio were isolated to Bel Rio, and that Belmont restaurants are being unfairly punished for that restaurant’s indiscretions. “If we were offending our neighbors on a regular basis—I’m a neighbor myself—I’d shut it down,” he says. “It’s not good business practice.”

“You’ve got a law that now, as it exists, if you’re being annoying to someone they can call,” says Frazier. “There’s already an ordinance that you can enforce if it is in fact a nuisance to a neighbor.”

But Tolbert encouraged the crowd to keep concerns about Belmont separate, offering to take up the two issues—what permits businesses need to host music, and the Belmont noise juggernaut—separately. “Ninety-nine percent of the changes we’re talking about making now, everyone is going to support. As soon as we throw Belmont in there, we’re going to run into a buzzsaw,” Tolbert said at the meeting.

But judging by the tone of the meeting, that crisis is headed straight for a buzzsaw­ that’ll send dB-meters into the red. But until we hit it again, remember the words of Dodd: “I’d like to see it where everybody can be happy, everybody can win, where we can have our music, and people in areas like Belmont can sleep at night.”

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