Anti-noise citations irk some downtown bar owners

Thursday, June 18, 2009 11:44 PM
Last updated Friday, June 19, 2009 7:40 AM
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SAVANNAH -- Dee Bowers sipped his drink during a quiet Friday night happy hour at the Mercury Lounge downtown on Congress Street.

The jukebox in the corner of the bar was silent, and the stage was vacant.

A few hours later, customers would liven up the place, generating commotion as well as new fears among managers about visits from police or city zoning officials ready to cite the bar for violating Savannah's noise ordinance.

The only solution: Keep the doors closed and the sounds of merriment muted.

"There's no way - that's how you sell your business," said Bowers, who has owned businesses along River Street and provided consulting to area bars trying to come under sound compliance.

"People walking along the street are drawn to what they hear - that's how you bring them in," he said.

But in recent weeks, Savannah-Chatham police and the city zoning department have issued tickets to at least three downtown bars found in violation of the noise ordinance.

A metro police officer can issue a ticket resulting in a $700 fine. At one bar, the city zoning department opted to issue two subpoenas, costing its owner more than $2,000 in legal fees.

Enforcement normal

Police say checking on bars is routine.

"The downtown precinct conducts unannounced city noise-ordinance checks at all bars and clubs several times a year," said metro police spokesman Gene Harley. "In short, it's much like a car in traffic playing their music loudly. Everyone's been there. Everyone around them can hear the music.

"You may enjoy the music, but that does not mean everyone else wants to listen to it or has to listen to it. ... The same thought goes into citing bars."

A copy of the noise control ordinance provided by city spokesman Bret Bell limits levels for businesses to 65 decibels at all times.

"However, bars, taverns, lounges, nightclubs, dance halls, game rooms and similar activities which produce a noise that is plainly audible beyond the premises shall be deemed a noise disturbance of this article," the ordinance states.

Enforcement of the noise ordinance was news to Mercury Lounge co-owner Mike Warren, when he and a neighboring bar, the Jinx, were cited for violating the ordinance by police shortly after midnight April 1.

For Warren, who has been involved with Mercury for a decade, it was the first time he ever heard of any downtown bar being cited for noise.

Warren was cited by police again on April 17. He wonders how to amend the problem without losing business. Leaving the door closed to keep sound in is not an option, he said.

The choice between paying the $1,400 in fines or retaining an attorney is hard to swallow, with patrons spending less during the sluggish economy.

"It's tough - that comes from my business," he said of the fines and attorney's fees. "So to speak, it's coming from my backside."

Bar fight

Around the corner on Whitaker Street, Wes Daniel's bar, Hang Fire, had been open for more than a year without any noise-related problems when the floor above was converted to condos and residents.

"All of a sudden, we start getting complaints," Daniel said. "This place has been a bar in one way or another for 150 years, and now someone brings up a problem."

Daniel said metro police visited his bar "several times" last year regarding noise complaints. At least two police reports were filed about the issue, both from the same woman in an upstairs condo.

Both reports indicate officers heard "loud music" in the condo. The reports also state that police asked bar staff to keep the music down. Daniel said metro officers never cited him, and the two reports do not indicate anything more than warnings.

Daniel said things quieted down toward the end of the year until he was issued a subpoena by the city zoning department on Feb. 27.

On March 2, the case was dismissed without explanation by Chatham County Recorders Court Judge Claire Cornwell-Williams, according to an agreement provided by the zoning department.

Daniel's zoning troubles did not end there. At 1:30 a.m. on April 19, another zoning department citation was issued for the same violation.

Last month, that complaint was retracted by city officials.

"Hang Fire had agreed to work something out and come into some sort of compliance," city spokesman Bell said.

As for why Hang Fire's alleged noise violation was moved from being handled by metro police to the zoning department, Bell explained that Police Chief Michael Berkow received an e-mail from someone, and it was passed on to the appropriate department.

"The departments have equal powers with things like this - either one can handle them," Bell said of the two departments.

Meanwhile, Daniel said he stands to lose thousands of dollars in business, not to mention the roughly $2,000 in legal fees.

"We haven't booked bands because of this, and that's lost business to us," he said.

Mixing bars, homes

The issue of balancing Savannah's bar scene with quality of life for those who choose to reside in the downtown neighborhood is tough, said Lise Sundrla, executive director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority.

"When you live in a community such as Savannah - with a lot of mixed-use and activity - we have that vibrancy people want," Sundrla said. "At the same time, it's balancing those exciting commercial uses."

Sundrla said placing high-end condos next to bars isn't a buyer-beware issue.

"We don't want to say, well, you're stuck with it," she said. "We'd rather say: Let's see how we can address that."

She added that her organization is thinking of ways to buffer bars with residences that continue to sprout up closer to the city's core.

The noise blitz on bars has not fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. City Council chairman Tony Thomas said he also has heard the concerns of bar owners.

"I have gone to some of these bars. They have expressed anxiety, and it concerns me," Thomas said. "It's an affront on our downtown entertainment - people who have their front door open and have music coming out of it. I think it's ridiculous."

Bowers said, bottom line, the things that make Savannah a unique destination should not be erased.

"This is a part of the feel to the city," he said. "Everyone all over the world knows Savannah for this. Bar owners need a way to project their business."


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