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The noise levels are too damn high!

So contended a group of residents—many elderly—at a D.C. Council hearing Monday on legislation first introduced by At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange in May. The Nightlife Regulation Amendment Act of 2015 would require establishments with D.C. liquor licenses to cease “provid[ing] entertainment or recorded music on an unenclosed outdoor summer garden or sidewalk café after midnight during any day of the week.” It would also create a standard allowing the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to cite and fine licensed establishments that produce noise that is “plainly audible” from 50 feet away at night and 100 feet away in the day—specifically from amplification devices and musical instruments like drums—or can be heard inside a person’s home within a residential zone. After five citations, the city could revoke a business’s entertainment license or restrict entertainment for 20 days.

“I’m looking for the proper balance,” Orange said. “There’s no way you can eliminate noise; it’s just a part of life… Ten years ago, we didn’t have this problem. It all has come about because of rooftop establishments blasting noise at three or four [in the morning].”

The newly formed D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, whose board consists of 11 local business representatives, issued a statement Monday in opposition to the bill. The group’s executive director, Washington Blade columnist Mark Lee, wrote that the legislation would “effectively force” outdoor businesses to close at midnight. The “plainly audible” standard, Lee said, would result in subjective determinations of noise. (Currently, D.C. uses decibel data culled from measurement instruments to enforce laws.)

“There is an effort underway to eliminate the popular dining and socializing amenities residents and visitors broadly support and eagerly patronize,” Lee wrote. “It’s an attempt to placate a small and unrepresentive group that will never be mollified until the city rolls up the sidewalks and turns off the streetlights shortly after sunset.”

At issue, too, is enforcement: How would ABRA and other agencies like the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Metropolitan Police Department make sure the bill’s provisions have teeth? Carl Nelson, a resident of the Palladium Condominium in Dupont and co-founder of the D.C Nightlife Noise Coalition, voiced concerns that the residents of his building at 1325 18th St. NW (just steps from Dupont Circle) already can’t depend on the city to keep their homes quiet. According to Nelson, ABRA received more than 30 noise complaints from the Palladium over 18 months, all of which recorded “no violations” at surrounding establishments. “In the face of no enforcement, [we] have [had] to pursue clubs one-by-one,” he said. “We want transparency and accountability.”

Noise problems appear to be primarily popping up in neighborhoods with new mixed-use developments. Joan Sterling, president of the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, testified that there is an “overconcentration of ABRA licenses” in her part of town, suggesting that the agency needs greater funds to enforce its own rules. Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Citizens Association and a 20-year resident of the neighborhood, added that the Office of Planning should help regulate noise. “We need a nightclub zone,” she said.

How D.C. moves forward on noise regulations remains to be seen. Councilmembers may find themselves in the fraught position of wanting to appear both pro-business and pro-resident as the city grows, incorporating more bars—and more people—in the process.

“We certainly want our small businesses to succeed,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who joined the Council this year. “But [we] also want neighbors to know [that] sidewalks will be clean, they can sleep, and patrons’ behavior” will be acceptable.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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