Battle for Aspen’s soul?

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Andre Salvail/The Aspen Times

To some Aspen bar and restaurant owners, musicians and music lovers, there’s a bigger picture amid the small battles over noise downtown.

It’s much more than an issue of adhering to city-imposed maximum noise levels or recognizing that amplifiers are not allowed on the Cooper and Hyman pedestrian malls. To them, it’s all about ensuring that the heart of the community maintains its vibrancy — its “soul,” so to speak — through music and live performance.

“You shouldn’t sacrifice the vitality of the downtown community, a commercial area, for one or two residents who complain,” said Trenton Allan, a longtime Aspen musician who regularly coordinates many of the live-music offerings for downtown venues.

“Music, on the small scale that we’re doing it, with acoustic instruments and a (public-address system), is helping our businesses to succeed,” he added. “We’re not booking five-piece rock bands with multiple amplifiers; it’s not loud at all. I think it’s time the city stopped catering to the complainers and started catering to the community.“

The issue of regulating music in downtown Aspen, whether live or prerecorded, is nothing new. For many years, local musicians and club operators have felt picked on by residents — people who chose to move into a seasonally bustling commercial district of a tourism-dependent city — who ask the Aspen Police Department to clamp down on live music when they feel bothered by it.

Because it takes a complaint to trigger regulation, enforcement of the noise ordinance has been sporadic. But it’s been on the rise over the past few weeks.

Aspen Municipal Court is scheduled to take up two separate violations of the noise ordinance Wednesday, both involving music at Aspen Brewing Co.’s tasting room on East Hopkins Avenue. And the city’s code enforcement officer, as well as the chairman of the Commercial Core Lodging Commission, have been warning businesses not only about the acceptable decibel levels but also the restriction on amplified music on the malls, which are public property.

Even the businesses that lease mall space from the city to provide visitors and residents with the option of outdoor dining and drinking aren’t allowed to host a musician with amplified sound. Live music has to be unplugged completely, which doesn’t always cut it for the music fan and tends not to attract people to the establishment.

For much of the summer, musicians got to use their amplifiers or public-address systems in the mall as long as they kept the volume under control. Now it no longer is being tolerated.

Last week, the Commercial Core Lodging Commission discussed the issue, according to Chairman Don Sheeley. The commission is an advisory body to the city and doesn’t have regulatory powers.

“We voted (in support) of not having any amplified music outside on the mall,” Sheeley said. “What happens is it gets out of control, with one person playing rock ’n’ roll and another playing hip-hop or whatever. So the answer to that is ‘no amplified music.’ We’re just reiterating what the ordinance already says.”

Aside from the question of allowing amplifiers on the mall, there also is concern about the maximum allowable decibel levels from music or noise that is produced inside a business but bleeds outside, sometimes through an open door. Before 9 p.m., the limit is 65 decibels in the downtown area. After 9 p.m., it drops to 60 decibels.

The problem, critics of the city’s noise ordinance say, is that a conversation at a normal volume between two people can rise to 60 or 65 decibels. Even Sheeley said the decibel limits are too low.

Brad Smith, general manager of the Red Onion on the Cooper Avenue mall, said he’s asked Mayor Steve Skadron to consider raising the restriction to 75 decibels.

“We usually have one or two musicians, and they use acoustic instruments, but they have to have some amplification; otherwise people aren’t going to be able to hear them,” Smith said.

He said that not only does live music benefit the businesses that are offering it and the musicians who are playing it, but it’s a payoff for the city, as well. More business means more sales tax revenue for local government coffers.

“I’ve talked to the council about this in the past, and they all want to see more energy driven to the mall,” Smith said. “So if you can drive people to the mall with (live music), why wouldn’t you do it?”

Jannette Whitcomb, environmental health program coordinator for the city, said a City Council work session will be held in November to provide information about the noise ordinance and to see if council members want to move in a different policy direction.

She said the 60- and 65-decibel limits in Aspen’s noise ordinance aren’t out of line with what other cities do. Enforcement is complaint-driven, she pointed out, and the city strives to find a balance between the rights of property owners and the interests of clubs that sponsor music.

Typically, warnings are issued in lieu of citations and fines, she said. And decibel readings often are conducted at the spot where the person making the complaint is hearing the sound instead of at the point of origin, where the measure would be higher.

“We go to the complainant’s property line first,” Whitcomb said.

She said the recent spate of complaints prompted the need for a new policy discussion on the noise ordinance.

“It’s basically the council’s ordinance that we are charged with enforcing,” Whitcomb said.

She added, however, that noise can be a form of pollution and a health and safety risk, which is why the Environmental Health Department has taken steps over the years to determine acceptable volumes in numerous areas, from music to construction activity to lawn care.