The live music that Falls Church Distillers has featured to complete the ambiance for its outdoor dining has been a nuisance to its neighbors, and that may be jeopardizing the distillery’s long-term commitment to the City of Falls Church.
Michael Paluzzi, the owner of Falls Church Distillers, told the News-Press that live music is the biggest draw for his business. Before the coronavirus pandemic took off in the spring, he would regularly hold shows inside the distillery until midnight or 1 a.m. without a problem.
Ever since the City relaxed its zoning rules to accommodate more outdoor dining during the pandemic, businesses like the distillery have brought their music outdoors as well. The choice to do so, however, hasn’t been unanimously enjoyed by nearby residents.
“I would say at least 50 percent of the weekend nights” since re-opening in the early summer have had some kind of a police presence, Paluzzi said. He mentioned one specific situation where cops responded to a call and then camped out to listen to the music, until Paluzzi asked them to leave since they were making guests uncomfortable. “I can’t survive in this situation if it’s going to be maintained,” he added.
City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press that a bulk of the calls are coming from nearby apartment complexes in Pearson Square and 455 at Tinner Hill, the latter of which is directly across the street from the distillery’s parking lot where the music comes from. There are only seven noise complaints for outdoor music in the City’s Request Tracker, per spokeswoman Susan Finarelli, though she said that other complaints may have been made directly to Council members or told anecdotally to City staff.
According to City code, there is a noise ordinance that prevents music (or any loud noise, for that matter) from being played from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. on weekends. Shields said that the City relaxed its noise ordinances to allow for music to be played until 10 p.m. on weekends. For noise ordinances to change, it has to go through a review by City Boards and Commissions before being adopted by the City Council.
The leniency has been appreciated by Paluzzi. He also sympathizes and understands the nature of the complaints — people are stuck more in their homes than they’re used to, so they’re around more to listen to what’s going on outside their windows. And he knows he’s not alone, mentioning how staff at Liberty Barbecue and the State Theatre have also told him about noise complaints they’ve received for their outdoor shows.
But, he said, his main goal is making enough revenue to pay his bills and pay his employees, which has been a shared struggle for all businesses over the past eight months.
The simplest solution has been for distillery’s bands to turn down the volume level. That’s been the remedy put forward by Shields.
Paluzzi uses a decibel meter and measures the music at the curb level to make sure it’s within City limits. He also sits at his furthest outdoor table to gauge if he can hold a conversation while the bands play, such as Grateful Jams and Stealing Liberty on Sunday night.
Even with those efforts, Bob Young, the chair of the City’s semi-autonomous Economic Development Authority, believes it’s all about compromise.
“What I am trying to emphasize is the need for reasonable people to be flexible to the extent they feel they can be so we can all get through the winter together, and we have our businesses surviving on the other side,” Young said.
Falls Church Distillers is planning ahead as the temperature drops and people move back indoors. Plexiglass barriers separating the singers, a more spread out floor plan and potentially having people buy tickets in advance to ensure the lower capacity crowds still bring in decent revenue. With a higher rate of returning customers — ticking up from percentages in the high 20s to low 30s over the past few months — Paluzzi has witnessed a broader customer base that’s coming from Bethesda and even D.C. since Virginia is further along in its reopening.
But another realistic option is for Paluzzi to leave the City altogether. Shields said it hadn’t been a conversation the two had shared, so he didn’t want to comment on it, but Paluzzi has already scouted out places that offer more open air while still being able to continue his distillery/restaurant combination. The closest location to the City he could find? Dumfries in Prince William County. The farthest is the Great Plains in western Virginia.
If that is the route Paluzzi takes, it’s something where he’d ideally downsize to a smaller location in Falls Church. He has one year left on his lease before he has to make a call on whether or not to exercise an option for an additional five years, so he’s going to see how things play out.
In the meantime, he’d like for the City to consider some broader efforts to help businesses. One thing he suggested was a deduction on capital gains taxes, which for him includes all his distillery equipment, considering he didn’t make money off it for three months out of the year.
He also thinks the City has a chance to become a regional destination for live music given its homey feel and intimate outdoor areas. Young said that the City has always made efforts to promote its ability to endorse live music; it’s the circumstances of the pandemic that make it a challenge. For Shields, it’s about trying to give everyone what they want — within reason.
“We want our businesses to be successful, and we want them to be in harmony with our neighbors as well,” Shield said.