City tuning zoning code to help keep music playing
“Music and art on a core level are not to be considered a for-profit venture,” said Sam Bush, a local musician who operates a small venue called the Garage near Lee Park.
A staff memo that accompanied the directive said the Garage would receive a cease-and-desist letter because music events there were not in compliance with zoning. That prompted Bush to appear with several others to tell the council that the city was overstepping its bounds to shut down music.
“That’s absolutely the furthest thing from the truth,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. “We are not regulating music. It’s about whether a business is appropriate in a particular location.”
The city’s zoning code allows “incidental” music in all restaurants, meaning it must be non-amplified and played only while food is being served. If tables and chairs are moved to clear way for dancing, the venue is technically a “music hall,” according to the code. That requires the owner to pay $1,500 for a special-use permit, but the use is not allowed in all of the city’s commercial zoning districts.
Peter Castiglione of Maya, a restaurant on West Main, told the council he was disconcerted because he had to apply for a permit.
“We do offer live music three nights a week and I can honestly say that live music enriches the culture and the atmosphere of our business,” Castiglione said. “I believe that dining and live music culture is something you find in all the great cities.”
The issue came up after the now-defunct Bel Rio restaurant consistently violated the zoning code and angered some Belmont residents with late-night music. The owner, Jim Baldi, vanished amid allegations of fraud and embezzlement and is now a fugitive.
Staff developed a matrix of all existing restaurants in Charlottesville listing which ones offered live music. They found several that are not in compliance because they lack a permit.
“We have two options,” Tolbert said. “One is to pursue action for them for being in noncompliance, or we can amend the ordinance to get them in compliance. We chose the latter.”
Possible changes to the code could include the creation of a “provisional use permit,” which would not be as expensive. Another would be adding music halls as an allowed use in more zoning districts.
Allison Ruffner was one of many Belmont residents who called on the city to shut down music events at Bel Rio because they were disruptive and affected their quality of life. Ruffner supports the review.
“I am hoping what is going to come out of this is a more professional approach,” Ruffner told the council. “If people want to [have music], they’re going to have to make a commitment to this.”
One result of the review so far has been a re-evaluation of the Garage.
“We took another look at that, and after all the comments, it doesn’t meet the definition of a restaurant and music,” Tolbert said. “It is just a building where people play music.”
Jacob Wolf, a local promoter and writer for the music and arts blog Nailgun, said he is hopeful something positive will result from the review.
“I’m optimistic that the mayor and the council members will think about establishing some common sense zoning regulations,” Wolf said. “I think it requires the community to continue to apply pressure to get the zoning passed that we want.”
Wolf and others have been meeting with Tolbert to better understand the process so they can provide feedback on the code changes. The Planning Commission is expected to take up the matter at its meeting in March.
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