Panel recommends dropping live music permits
By Sean Tubbs
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
The Charlottesville Planning Commission recommended a plan Tuesday to modify the city’s zoning code to allow live music without a permit in many of the city’s commercial zoning districts.
The city’s zoning laws currently allow only non-amplified music in restaurants. Amplified music requires the business to have a special-use permit at a cost of $1,500. A review of the city’s restaurants showed many were not in compliance.
“We were noticing that every time you picked up one of the weekly newspapers there was an ad for a place that we didn’t know did music,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. “We did an analysis and there were between 20 and 25 that are operating in places that need a special-use permit.”
In January, the City Council initiated a study to address the issue. After meeting with members of the music community, Tolbert’s recommendation was to allow music performances as a by-right use in many of the city’s commercial zoning districts, with some notable exceptions.
Tolbert said he came to the conclusion that if a venue becomes a problem to its neighbors, the city can use the noise ordinance, Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations and fire code to shut it down.
“If a venue is allowed 80 people, and there are 81, [the fire marshal] has the authority to close the doors,” Tolbert said.
However, at a public hearing Tuesday, some members of the public were concerned that allowing music by-right in mixed-use neighborhoods would cause problems.
“Please do not let this happen again in another neighborhood,” said Shirley Shotwell, who lives next door to the building that formerly housed Bel Rio, a now-closed restaurant in Belmont that sparked the review of music venues.
“Please do not let them have amplified music in neighborhoods where people live,” Shotwell said.
But Randolph Bird, a flute player who lives in Crozet, said he did not feel zoning laws should be used to restrict live music.
“You have a noise ordinance,” Bird said. “The police should arrest those who break it and make them pay a fine. Do that once or twice and it won’t happen again.”
However, Belmont resident Allison Ruffner was opposed to the changes, and felt they would affect other residential neighborhoods in the future.
“You have to have rules and you have to guidelines and so far I’m not seeing anything that’s being written into this code that says there’s a time and place for everything,” Ruffner said. “If you don’t make it expensive, you’re going to have chaos.”
Commissioners were generally supportive of Tolbert’s recommended changes, but were weary of creating another Bel Rio-type situation.
Commissioner Lisa Green, a Belmont resident who joined the commission in August, was concerned that some of the zones being proposed for by-right music would affect neighborhoods. She singled out the Downtown Extended zone, which is to the south of the Downtown Mall.
“In the case of Downtown Extended, you are surrounded completely by residents,” Green said.
With that in mind, the commission made slight changes to Tolbert’s recommendations. If ratified by the City Council, a special-use permit will be required in the city’s M-1, South Street and highway commercial zoning districts. A provisional-use permit will be required in the city’s Downtown Extended district.
Commissioners voted 5-1 to recommend the changes, with John Santoski voting against. Santoski had supported having music performances as a by-right use, but did not agree with the modifications.
Live amplified music will still not be allowed in the Emmet Street corridor or in the Belmont neighborhood. Restaurant owners there who want to have music performances in the future will have to petition the city to change the zoning code. Tolbert said he would not be bringing such a petition before the council.
Green said she wanted assurance that the police department was ready and willing to enforce the noise ordinance if necessary. Tolbert said he would talk with Police Chief Timothy J. Longo before presenting the plan to the City Council later this spring.
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