Aspen: Party town or Mayberry?
July 4, 2011
ASPEN – In the minds of live-music lovers, Aspen has a history as a fun place to party and enjoy bands and acoustic solo shows in a cool setting without the threat of harassment.
In the view of some who live in the city’s commercial core, the fun has gotten out of hand and threatens their right to peace and quiet, especially after sundown.
The two sides on the issue of club noise have often been at odds, with one of the recent clashes occurring two Mondays ago at The Red Onion when an Aspen policeman responding to a resident’s complaint told the open-mike night coordinator and the bartender to turn down the music.
Problem is, the music consisted of acoustic solo performers and wasn’t even close to being loud enough to measure at or above the city’s limitation of 60 decibels just outside the bar and eatery.
The crowd was the likely culprit – and how do you tell people having fun and spending money in one of the city’s oldest and most popular nightspots to shut their traps because one guy can’t handle noise during the midnight hour?
“It’s a shame that if one person can complain it can ruin a good night of music and business in the commercial core of our town,” said Trenton Allan, who runs the open-mike event at The Red Onion, the Aspen institution on the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall.
Recommended Stories For You
“When police start listening to those single complaints and ask us to shut it down and threaten us with tickets and warnings of future fines, that’s when we’ve become an unhealthy community,” he said.
Allan, a local musician, said the issue has been around for many years. “I want to open the dialogue on this,” he said. “The complainers have been chasing me around town, from place to place, for years. I don’t think it’s fair.”
If the city wants to benefit from a thriving nightclub scene, it needs to call off the watchdogs, he said. If a downtown resident has a complaint, he should politely visit the club and ask for some relief without going to the extreme of calling police, Allan said.
The Monday open-mic nights at The Red Onion have become more and more popular since starting late last year, he said. The crowd can be a little noisy at times, but is free of fights and other kinds of trouble, Allan said.
“It seems to me that it’s a waste of police time to go to the only busy place on a Monday night to respond to the complaints of one guy,” he said. “As for those who complain, I can respect a person’s need for peace and quiet. But you should know what you’re getting into when you move into a house or apartment in downtown Aspen that’s next to music clubs, bars and the bus station.”
The policeman who investigated the complaint did not return calls from The Aspen Times seeking comment. Allan said the officer showed up just after midnight and said he had heard the noise farther down the street while walking in the vicinity of the Hunter Bar. He did not have a decibel meter: “He said he just knew that it was too loud,” Allan said. “It was his judgment call.”
Allan said he offered the policeman the use of his decibel meter, but the officer declined.
While the acoustic shows are amplified though public-address systems, there’s no way the music from inside the bar could have registered at or over 60 decibels in the pedestrian mall, Allan said. The crowd noise, especially when the doors are opened from customers entering and leaving, might have been the real issue, Allan said.
“Do we really want to put a damper on a healthy crowd on a slow Monday night in downtown Aspen?” he asked. “That wouldn’t make sense to me, from a business perspective.”
James True, special counsel for the city, said he has prosecuted recent cases in which a downtown club was cited for noise complaints. Very rarely, about once a year, does a situation get to the point of a court appearance before the municipal judge, he said.
Recently, the Hunter Bar was cited for exceeding the limitations in the noise ordinance and accepted a small fine and probation, True said.
“Every once in a while these issues pop up in municipal court,” he said. “What generally happens is that police will get a complaint, and they go over and ask the bar to turn it down. Generally the bar will comply and nothing happens.”
True said earlier this year, the Hunter Bar had issues involving the noise volume of recorded music over a span of several nights. On the night a citation was issued, police had earlier contacted the club and asked for a lower volume. That request was obeyed for a while but when another complaint about the noise was registered, the nightspot was found to be out of compliance and a ticket was issued, True said.
The citation was issued after midnight, he said. The city’s noise ordinance allows a level up to 60 dBA – dBA is the standard decibel-level measure of environmental noise – between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. in the commercial core. By law, Aspen bars are required to close at 2 a.m.
“It was a single citation, but it was generated following several complaints over a period of time, a week as I recall,” he said.
Hunter Bar and The Red Onion are not the only nightspots under scrutiny. The Aspen City Council, in a recent work session, recently discussed complaints involving the music coming from Junk, a bar and eatery with a patio near the water fountains on the south end of Mill Street. The owner of Junk has denied that the volume exceeded city code.
True said the police-measured dBA readings are more likely to focus on the source of amplified noise, whether recorded music or a live show, than the crowd noise. But, he added, if the crowd noise exceeds the city’s limits, the club is ultimately responsible.
“I don’t think we’re trying to regulate people having fun, I think what we’re trying to do is just make sure they maintain compliance with the law,” he said. “Generally, the citations I’ve seen have been resulting from the artificial amplification used by the bar.”
True said he could not discuss policy issues regarding the city’s overall attitude about club-noise levels and enforcement philosophy. “That would be for council or the city manager,” he said. “By the time it gets to me, somebody in the police department or the environmental health department has determined that it warranted a citation.”
Allan said if a resident or a policeman has an issue about the noise emanating from a live-music performance, there’s no reason to take an unfriendly tone.
“This attitude of ‘knock it off and turn it down’ seems to be a recurring theme in downtown Aspen,” he said. “Telling everyone to ‘sit down and shut up’ is not the way to do business. One guy complains, and then the whole police department comes down on his side.”
Allan said a lot of hardworking people – many of them service-industry employees who work late into the evening and need a place to unwind – enjoy the open-mic shows and other live-music performances in which he’s typically involved as either an artist or a soundman.
“Do we want to be a vibrant town that everyone can enjoy? Or are we catering to what the expensive retail shops and wealthy homeowners want? This is my town, my home. I’m raising a family here. I also want a vibrant community with live music and bars and people walking the streets, searching for fun things to do.”