by Ryan Pitkin
Another step in a lengthy debate over whether certain businesses can play music at night was taken Thursday when the Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Department hosted a public forum, the first this year. About 120 bar and restaurant owners, lawyers, and representatives of the local music industry came mostly to defend the current noise ordinance, which allows restaurants - not nightclubs - 400 feet from residential areas to play music into the night.
But many came to argue that the city should reconsider its decades-old definitions of restaurants and nightclubs, since some of the businesses represented at the meeting operate as both. Planning Department Director Debra Campbell said she called the meeting to gather public input to determine how - if at all - the city should change those definitions. Nightclubs, technically liquor- and entertainment-providing businesses, aren't allowed to play music within 400 feet of residential neighborhoods.
Another reason the meeting could have been called was because of a small but vocal group of residents in the Plaza Midwood, NoDa and Elizabeth neighborhoods that complains about nighttime noise coming from crowded bars and restaurants close to their homes. Their complaints persisted even after business owners and the city compromised in 2011 on the noise ordinance, which barred loud music after 11 p.m. on the weekends.
Brian Cullinan, publisher of Shuffle Magazine, said Thursday's meeting felt like double jeopardy. "The elephant in the room is that this is again about noise. We fought very hard, we rallied together as a city, and put together what we thought was a common-sense noise ordinance [in 2011]. Now we have to refight that."
Some attendees were annoyed by Thursday's unorganized discussion.
"A lot of people were just talking, getting off topic," said Chris Ingram, owner of Jack Beagle's restaurant in NoDa. "We need to get on topic, wipe those definitions clean, define the problem, and work with zoning to find a buffer."
But Campbell faced a daunting task, as even the crowd couldn't agree on new definitions. At one point, Blind Pig owner Jerry Hebert wrote "I feel bad for her" on a napkin.
"People think we have our presupposed solutions and they have theirs," said Campbell after the meeting. "They think we already know what we want to do about the problem. I was trying to convince them that's not the case, but I'm not sure how successful I was."
The next meeting will be held Feb. 19 at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center, followed by three more throughout spring. City Council is expected to vote on something - no one knows what, exactly - in June.
Look for more coverage on the issue in next week's print edition.