Aspen Times Editorial: In downtown Aspen, music over selfish interests
August 30, 2013
We'd like to commend the city of Aspen's Environmental Health Department for scheduling a long-overdue City Council work session later this year on the topic of the noise ordinance.
It remains to be seen whether council members are in favor of changes, one way or the other, with regard to the maximum sound levels that the city relies on to enforce violations of the law. But the fact that a serious discussion of the issue is forthcoming — in light of recent complaints about live music in the downtown area — is a positive development in itself.
The controversy has heated up in recent weeks because of outcries from fewer than a handful of downtown residents. Call them an extremely vocal minority, for that is what they are. Primarily, the complaints have involved live-music offerings on so-called Restaurant Row, the stretch of restaurants and bars on East Hopkins Avenue, and establishments along the Hyman and Cooper pedestrian malls, where musicians were able to set up shop on outdoor public property for most of the summer — until a recent crackdown.
The problems with the current ordinance (as we see them), which contains maximum volume levels of 65 decibels before 9 p.m. and 60 decibels after 9 p.m., are as follows:
• There is selective enforcement, driven on a complaint basis. In other words, a venue is able to pump up the volume so long as no one minds it. This is inherently unfair. The residents who live across the street from Justice Snow's, the restaurant inside the city-owned Wheeler Opera House building, might be less inclined to worry about noise than, say, penthouse owners who live near Restaurant Row or across the Cooper Avenue mall from the Red Onion or Ryno's Pints and Pies. Such a practice pits neighboring businesses against one another, i.e.: "Why are you picking on us when so-and-so is playing live music down the street?"
• The decibel limits are not realistic. A 60-decibel level is not very loud, and can be reached by two people having a normal conversation at dinner. Also, where does the regulator take the meter reading, at the point of origin or at the spot where the complainant hears the noise? What type of equipment is the enforcement officer using? These are issues of consistency that ought to be addressed.
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• The rules run contrary to the community goal of downtown vitality. Over and over, city leaders and staffers express their desire for "messy vitality" in Aspen's commercial core. Music on the pedestrian malls, or inside establishments with doors and windows that are intentionally left open so that sound can escape and draw in curious passers-by, serves to stir activity in the heart of the city. Catering to the few people who are anti-music runs counter to the city's best interests and eventually will hit the city in the pocketbook — fewer people downtown equates to reduced sales taxes.
• The complainers have a false sense of entitlement. They bought or rented upper-floor residential properties — "penthouses," many people call them — in a commercially zoned district of a tourism-dependent town. Why would they expect peace and quiet at all hours of the day or night? Their money might have been better spent on properties in quiet communities such as Woody Creek, Snowmass Village or Silt. Downtown Aspen doesn't seem to be the place for them.
This is not, as some City Hall employees have contended, an "issue du jour." It seems to pop up during each winter and summer tourism season and at other times bubbles just below the surface. It was just as relevant three years ago, when Aspen police were (unfairly) taking meter readings just outside the front door of the Red Onion, a historically popular venue for Aspen's live-music scene (where John Denver used to perform before he hit mega-stardom), as earlier this month, when police twice wrote citations to employees of Aspen Brewing Co.
Speaking of the brewing company and its tasting room on East Hopkins, a trial is expected later this fall in Aspen Municipal Court on those two citations. The owner, Duncan Clauss, ought to be applauded for having the guts to challenge the infractions, which we liken to driving 23 mph in a 20-mph zone. That taxpayer money and the city's time will be spent on prosecuting this matter strikes us as a bit ludicrous, but so be it — the process is the process.
Again, we are encouraged that the city and council members are set to take a look at this crucial matter, one that will have an effect on the vibrancy and economic sustainability of the downtown area for years to come. We also hope that the stakeholders affected by the ordinance — the club owners, musicians, even the complaining residents themselves — share their opinions with elected officials throughout the discussion process.
Whatever the outcome, democracy will best be served by a thorough hearing on the matter and full community involvement, much like what occurred last year during the debate on the Castle Creek hydroelectric project and earlier this week with the public hearing to gauge opinions on the USA Pro Challenge.
It's that important.
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