Tackling Noise Issues Could Hurt F.C.’s Live Music Scene

THE STATE THEATRE has kept live, outdoor music going even as the temperature dropped thanks to investing in heaters. Revenues have dropped over 90 percent for the venue, but COO Meredith Johnstone said patrons have helped out with donations. (Photo: Courtesy Meredith Johnstone)

It looks like the party is coming to an end for live music venues in the City of Falls Church that have relocated outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

There was a clear interest in enforcing the City’s noise ordinance at the City Council’s Feb. 8 meeting given how much disturbance the Covid-safe practice is causing neighbors, especially when it comes to Falls Church Distillers and the apartment residents at 455 at Tinner Hill and Pearson Square.

As it stands now, the ordinance allows live music to be played outdoors until 9 p.m. on weeknights and 10 p.m. on weekend nights, with the latter being adjusted by City Manager Wyatt Shields to accommodate venues during the pandemic. The proposed modification would push back the cut-off time until 10:30 p.m. on weekend nights, with establishments having to maintain a noise level between 65 – 85 decibels.

Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin revealed that loud music calls made up just over 20 percent of the 246 noise complaints the City received in the past 13 months, with the distillery responsible for 35 of them, followed by Lesly’s Restaurant Bar & Grill with 11, the State Theatre with four and Liberty Barbecue with three.

Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and Councilmember Letty Hardi were most adamant about doing something to calm residential concerns.

“It seems like they can make as much noise as they want before 9 p.m. and there are no consequences for that,” Connelly said. “That’s really frustrating to me.”

Captain Steve Rau said that police typically take three readings to determine if someone is in violation of the ordinance: one outside of the property line and two others down the street from the venue. So for Falls Church Distillers, the first reading would be across the street by 455 at Tinner Hill, and the other two would be on the corner of Tinner Hill Road and S. Washington Street on one end, and the corner of Tinner Hill Road and S. Maple Avenue on the other.

Rau did point out that the most helpful reading would be inside the home of the person who called in the complaint, but he added that residents are rarely willing to meet with the police after voicing their concerns.

When the Council was briefed on how enforcement has been handled so far — officers will show up to the premises, ask the owner to turn their music down and typically leave a written warning — and what the current legal recourse is for it now — charging an owner with a Class 1 Misdemeanor and bringing them before a judge, with a possible penalty maxing out at a $2,500 fine and a year in jail — Hardi wondered if there was a middle ground that police could take to help tamp down the problem.

No clear answer on what that middle ground would constitute was provided by either Gavin, Rau or City Attorney Carol McCoskrie, however Rau did note that some officers are still being trained on how to take decibel readings.

When giving his remarks at the meeting, Mayor David Tarter said that as the pandemic subsides so will this issue. In the meantime, he hoped the City’s Economic Development Authority will work with local businesses to either reconfigure their speakers in a way to avoid bothering neighbors or to look into sound dampening equipment to take the edge off their performances.

As the topic came to a close, Hardi and Connelly supported enforcement as the Council worked to modify its noise ordinance.

“[Ticketing] sounds like a plan to me. They’ve had plenty of warnings,” Connelly said.

Shields confirmed at the Feb. 17 Council work session that ticketed enforcement is being carried out.

F.C. DISTILLERS has been the main source of music complaints, with 35 calls to the police attributed to them. (Photo: News-Press)

Negotiating cut-off times haven’t been jabbing venue owners in the ribs as much as determining how realistic the 65 – 85 decibel range actually is.

For reference, IAC Acoustics, a commercial acoustics firm that works to control sound in the industrial, architectural and medical fields and is based in North Aurora, Illinois, offers a decibel scale in one of its blog posts. At the lower end of the City’s scale at 65 decibels is somewhere between a conversion at an office and a vacuum cleaner, while the upper end at 85 decibels is little quieter than a lawn mower. A rock concert ranges from 108 – 114 decibels, per IAC.

Meredith Johnstone, the COO of the State Theatre that has been holding free outdoor shows since June, said that there needs to be some work between the venues and the City on what the proper noise level is. However, she believed that, given the number of places around Falls Church that are having live shows outside, she doesn’t foresee that it will be too big of a problem to get everybody on the same page.

David Tax, a co-owner of Clare and Don’s Beach Shack that will resume its live music on March 13, said the City should figure out “what they’re signing up for” when it comes to 65 decibels. He admitted that he doesn’t know what it is himself, primarily because noise issues weren’t as prominent before Covid-19 forced everything outdoors, but he added that if the Council will make time for field trips to ribbon cuttings for new apartment buildings, they can do the same to get a better understanding of noise levels.

Councilmember Ross Litkenhous did just that over the weekend for a show at Falls Church Distillers, according to owner Michael Paluzzi.

While Paluzzi wished Litkenhous came solely in favor of what was in the businesses’ best interests, he did feel like he made an impression about how damaging a noise restriction would be. The distillery has made plans to move inside and limit capacity if police do start cracking down on noise complaints, but Paluzzi also shared with Litkenhous that it would affect his customer base and the ability to attract bands as well.

All City businesses have had a lean year due to the pandemic, including the live music venues. Paluzzi estimated that his revenues are down 60 percent year-over-year. Tax from Clare and Don’s said theirs were down 80 percent. Johnstone from the State Theatre said revenues had dropped 95 percent.

Even if the City’s enforcement were to be in the same realm as a speeding ticket — which in Virginia could be somewhere around $140 since it’s $90 for the ticket itself and then an additional $50 for processing fees, according to NerdWallet — that would negate the $100 of profit Paluzzi said he’s made on his best nights over the past year. With his lease ending Sept. 30, the noise issues have pushed Paluzzi to seek out another location for the distillery, potentially outside of the City.

The City Council passed a motion to grant a first reading on the revised noise ordinance during its Feb. 22 meeting.

It will have a second reading and open up for public comment at its March 8 meeting.