Live concerts with live audiences seem so long ago—no masks, no social distancing and, also, no concern for volume.
But for the first time in 20 years, Asheville officials want to update the city’s vague noise ordinance to reflect concerns and complaints from a growing residential population. And that has raised alarms in a music community nearly muted by the pandemic.
“Like, why now? Why couldn’t this be tabled until later?” asked Jessica Tomasin, the founding manager of Echo Mountain Recording Studios and co-founder of Asheville Music Professionals. Tomasin spoke this past Wednesday at an online information session hosted by AMP about the proposed ordinance.
City staff are still taking public comments on a website devoted to the proposed ordinance.
“Venues have already closed in this town,” she said. “My livelihood is at stake here and so many other people's if this passes the way it is.”
For the first time, city officials are proposing setting specific decibel limits—up to 75 decibels anywhere in the central business district from 7am until 10pm. At all other hours, the sound ceiling drops to 67 decibels. As points of comparison, according to the Hearing Health Foundation of New York, the volume from directly next to a hair dryer or vacuum averages 70 decibels. Normal conversation measures about 60 decibels.
The working timeline in Asheville has a final proposed ordinance going to city council in February, with new standards in effect in July. But even Ben Woody, the director of development services for the city spearheading the revised sound ordinance, says that timeline is likely unrealistic.
“Honestly, for what it’s worth, I think we’ve managed to make everyone upset with the ordinance,” Woody said. “I acknowledge there’s more work to do.”
City staff said it studied six years of noise complaints, from 2012 to 2018, conducted their own sound measurements, surveyed 1,500 people, held 30 meetings with stakeholders and studied ordinances from New York to Seattle to Greenville, along with a dozen other cities, before drafting the Asheville proposal.
Still, while the proposed ordinance is agnostic when it comes to the sources of sound—from industrial to automotive to residential—the music community seems particularly aggrieved.
“We can’t take decibel meters and chase cars up and down the road,” Woody said.
But the city can potentially cite or ticket venues, along with individual buskers. Promoters of outdoor shows are particularly vulnerable. The new Rabbit Rabbit, which exclusively hosts outdoor events, neighbors high-density condos and apartments on Coxe Avenue.
“We’ve spent the last nine months filing for unemployment, trying to figure out how we can pay our mortgages, literally surviving,” said Liz Whalen, the marketing and special events director of the Orange Peel, which owns Rabbit Rabbit.
“We are barely keeping our heads above water,” she said during the information session. “We don’t need to be kicked when we’re down.”
Woody said the music community should take solace in one finding: In all the pre-pandemic sound surveys conducted in Asheville, including from outside live music shows, there wasn’t a single instance of a club exceeding the proposed sound limits.
“The handful of measurements we did around music venues was ones we got complaints on. We never get complaints on the Orange Peel or the Grey Eagle or Isis (Music Hall) because they manage their facilities really well,” Woody said during the session. “But I’m gonna have to do this call next week with the same number of residents and they’re going to throw entirely different darts at me. We get thousands and thousands of complaints on noise every year in the city. Not to say they’re all valid, but the city is in a position of trying to find balance.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: City records show just over 7,000 noise complaints to Asheville Police between 2012-18. In no single year did the city receive more than 1,100 complaints.