It’s a classic, city-living showdown — the neighbor versus the nightclub.
And despite decades of bars pumping out loud music and residents complaining to city officials about the noise, a Thursday hearing before a D.C. Council committee made plain that the District still hasn’t been able to solve the problem.
Residents whose nerves are stretched thin by booming bass and bar owners concerned about their bottom lines gathered Thursday before the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs to weigh in on how best to address noise levels without curtailing the livelihood of the nightlife industry.
“Bars are getting a free pass right now on noise,” said Abigail Nichols, an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commission member representing the Dupont Circle area.
Noise ordinances allow the city to measure noise levels and issue fines, but residents said the current system is complicated, rarely enforced and unsuccessful in quieting problem bars.
D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, has proposed legislation that would require bar owners to use decibel meters to measure noise levels outside their businesses once an hour every night between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., and report levels to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulations Administration (ABRA.)
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But there is strong resistance to the proposal from bar owners, many of whom said only a small number of “bad actors” are flagrantly violating noise laws. They said the city has done a poor job enforcing the current laws and a new law would do nothing more that create a mountain of paperwork for ABRA.
“We don’t need more laws on the books but more assistance from the government,” said Dante Ferrando, owner of the Black Cat. “You need professionals out there who can solve problems.
ABRA officials said Mr. Orange’s proposal is not the best fix, noting that it would require two extra staff members to review weekly reports on noise levels from more than 1,200 bars and restaurants and that self-reported noise levels couldn’t be verified.
ABRA Director Fred Moosally recommended an alternative that would give his agency broader authority to dole out punishment for noise violations, simplify requirements for issuing a violation, and ban amplified music on patios and rooftops after midnight.
The current noise ordinance states that businesses can be fined when noise louder than 60 decibels can be heard outside their venues. The regulations proposed by ABRA, which is tasked with regulating businesses with alcohol licenses, would prohibit “amplified noise that can be heard at a distance of 50 feet or more from the establishment’s building during nighttime hours and 100 feet or more during daytime hours.”
“This simplified and sensible approach would allow ABRA investigators to substantiate audible noise complaints from the street without entering a resident’s home,” said Mr. Moosally, noting that other jurisdictions also use this approach.
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The agency also is seeking the ability to impose stiffer penalties for violations — including the ability to prevent a business from offering entertainment for periods of time and the ability to revoke an entertainment endorsement in the case of a business that has accrued four or more noise violations within four years.
Council member Charles Allen, while sympathetic to residents’ stories about nonstop noise from 2 p.m. to 4 a.m. emanating from bars on weekends, said he worries that adopting too broad a policy would burden the majority of bars that are following the law and try to work with residents on noise issues.
“I don’t want to overcorrect in a way that does damage to good actors,” the Ward 6 Democrat said.
Mr. Orange, who oversees the business committee, said he would work on refining the bill to include the ABRA proposals but added that he sensed at least one point of contention.
“The only one that could be controversial is shutting down the outside noise for those unenclosed establishments at midnight,” said the at-large Democrat.
He said he would be open to the idea of waivers that bars could request from ABRA in the event that rooftop or patio entertainment is believed to be key to a bar’s business, but added that he is impressed by the agency’s plan.
“Your proposal goes a long way in addressing the standard,” he told Mr. Moosally.