Salem’s noise ordinance is under scrunity
Def Leppard rocks arenas all over the world with deafening volumes, but during their visit to Salem in 2000 they were told to keep it down by the sound police, in lead singer Joe Elliot’s words, according to the rock news Web site Live Daily.
Salem’s noise ordinance sets maximum permissible sound levels from a commercial source after 10 p.m. at 50 decibels if the receiver of the noise is in a noise-sensitive location (i.e. residences) and at 65 decibels if it’s a commercial establishment.
“Nightlife is called nightlife for a reason,” Preston Koch, a solo musician from Salem, said. “If night events begin before nighttime it’s not nightlife, it’s afternoon life.”
Live music is generally louder than recorded music because of the use of amplifiers, multiple speakers and instruments. Local entertainment promoters and others interested in cultivating a more lively downtown would like to see an extended noise curfew.
“It’s a rock show; it’s a loud art. There’s something American about rock and roll; it deserves to have a niche,” said David Ballantyne, lead singer of The Funhouse Strippers (Laura Tesler’s favorite band). “No one’s asking for metal on the sidewalks on a Tuesday night. What we want is reasonable: midnight for Friday and Saturday nights,” he said, recalling a citation for violating the ordinance while playing acoustic music on downtown Salem sidewalks years ago.
Fight for the right to party
One popular near-downtown live music venue, The Space, was issued a cease and desist order March 12 as a last warning to comply or face fines up to $301 per occurrence. The Space organized to file an appeal and to lobby officials into supporting the growth of Salem’s nightlife. The nonprofit SalemPACE raised $256 dollars for the appeal, according to founder Jeremy Crofoot.
Jason Seibert took on the appeal case pro bono.
“I believe in the cause. Before I was a lawyer, I was a musician.”
Seibert will argue that the noise ordinance is not specific in defining a maximum noise level in properties that are simultaneously commercial and residential, such as Broadway Town Square across the street from The Space (the source of most complaints) which features apartments, Salem Cinema, and a Subway restaurant. The Space’s noise reading was over 50 but under 65 decibels.
“The noise ordinance says any property that has commercial elements is commercial and any property that is noise-sensitive is residential so it doesn’t know what to do when it’s both. It contradicts itself,” Seibert said. “When no person of ordinary intelligence would know how to comply [because of vagueness], an ordinance is void, according to Constitutional law,” he added.
Brady Rogers, Compliance Services Administrator for the City of Salem, who is responsible for enforcing the noise code, doesn’t think the appeal will be successful.
“Their argument doesn’t make sense. The ordinance defines a place as commercial or residential based on where they hear the noise from.”
On the decibel scale, the noise doubles every three decibels. The difference between 50 and 65 decibels, what The Space wants, would allow them to be 32 times louder,” explained Rogers.
He decided to issue a C&D order because recurrent complaints by nearby residents were reaching high costs in overtime pay for noise officials and were taking patrol time away from police.
“No matter what happens with the cease and desist order, we’ve already won because a conversation got started,” said Seibert. “If it continues to be finger pointing between residents and business owners nothing gets solved. We need a resolution that can be a model for the entire city to follow.”
David Glennie, President of Telos Development company, which financed the building project across the street from The Space, said the cease and desist order is being granted more attention than it deserves.
“They’re breaking the law. The only reason this has turned into a big deal is because the media is making it into a big deal,” he said. “This only serves one business, The Space, with advertising.”
Glennie said he wants The Space to follow the existing rules, which his tenants expected when they moved in.
“If they want change, they should do it legally. They can apply for a variance, or change the underlying statutes,” he said.
Doug Hoffman, owner of The Space, said he’s losing roughly $200 each night because his customers generally leave if there’s no entertainment.
“If this continues, I might have to shut down,” he said, explaining that touring bands are on the road during the day and a lot of customers go to the bar after getting off work.
“We’ve been good little rockers, so we haven’t had many problems for a while. It’s just a couple of people who are major squares and keep calling the cops,” said Mo Robles, a regular customer and employee at The Space.
Glennie said the noise has been tolerable recently, but he predicts public disturbances as the weather gets warmer.
“When they don’t close the door and the band is playing, the music is deafening. I’ve had tenants complain they can’t hold a conversation or watch TV,” he said. “If [The Space installed] double doors, air conditioning and soundproofing, we could coexist, but they don’t want to spend money, so they expect the neighbors to adjust to their noise. But they don’t sleep there and they don’t watch TV there.”
Hoffman and other entertainment promoters have thought about improving sound absorption, moving the venue, or creating an underground music scene, in the empty basements of downtown buildings.
“But this won’t solve the problem. It’s a bigger issue,” said Hoffman, who is hoping for the City to change its rules.
We built this city … for rock and roll
City Councilor Laura Tesler said that she has alerted city staff that she plans to address the noise ordinance issue should she be re-elected. She is well aware of the issues facing musicians and residents.
“We need an entertainment zone ordinance,” she said. “You can’t have a vibrant downtown without live music. This is a full-blown public process; [residents] need to be involved even if they’re not fans,” she said.
City Councilor and mayoral candidate Chuck Bennett is unsure about whether a change is needed in the ordinance, or if problems can be solved by working with individual businesses to help them improve to the point where they meet code requirements.
He has also approached city staff concerning the noise ordinance.
“I’ve been asking the city staff to work with [Hoffman]. I think he’s going to be fine in terms of meeting code, or he can take a look at another location,” he said.
Glennie wants the ordinance to be applied evenly.
“If the City wants to attract private investment for urban renewal they need to be consistent in the application of the noise ordinance,” said Glennie.
He and other investors provided over $22 million for the housing project and Salem Cinema.
“The City could face legal problems because it would be rendering our project unrentable, and why should I bear the economic consequences?”
Some Space customers claim they were there before the new tenants, but Glennie said he’s been working on the project for eight years. The Space opened in 2008.
According to the city’s Urban Development department Site A (1195 Broadway St.) was sold to Telos Development in March 2007 with construction beginning in 2008.
“I was really excited when new tenants arrived because [I thought] they’d bring more business to the bar,” said Hoffman. “But it’s been more of an Achilles’ heel. It’s them against us, rich people versus poor people.”
Ryan Mosher, owner of KTR Entertainment which hosts the Keizer Summit Rockfest, wants more a cultural city center.
“I’d like to see the creative class living downtown, filling it with music and culture,” he said.
Mosher also argues that the atmosphere created by alternative crowds can often turn neighborhoods more appealing to future investors.
“We can’t limit the housing to people who want rock and roll at midnight,” said Glennie.
Glennie’s son, William Glennie, plays in the band These Tavern Walls, and has played at The Space.
“We’re grateful for an opportunity to play, but I’ve been down there and it’s definitely loud. I can understand my dad’s tenants’ frustration,” he said.
Ross Swartzendruber, organizer of the Cherry City Music Festival, said the majority of Salem’s population falls under the 18-to-35 age category, and most of them would like a more vibrant nightlife.
“The problem is, they don’t have political clout,” he said.
Swartzendruber has been encouraging people to register to vote and attend meetings in order to increase pressure on city officials to change the noise ordinance, or at least obtain an exception for the downtown area.
The city has been planning to revise the code for a couple of years. The City Attorney is currently in the process of rewriting it.
Rogers cautions against high expectations.
“They still won’t be able to make the noise they want, but it will make a variance for an occasional concert or parade easier to obtain,” he said. “Then everyone will get a chance to participate in hearings.”
Austin City Limits
Some Salem live music activists share the vision of modeling Salem’s entertainment industry after Austin, Texas.
The City of Austin helps fund public art and sound mitigation, and it created a Live Music Task Force to offer recommendations for dealing with increasing noise complaints.
“This is about creating jobs, attracting industry, bringing in revenue for local businesses, and creating taxable income for cities. Not just noise,” said Mosher, who would like to see tax breaks, incentives and benefits for musicians and music industry professionals. “In fact, there is a movement in Portland right now to create a minimum wage for musicians and performers and they are getting close to creating one,” he said.
Austin’s music industry contributed $1 billion in economic activity, tens of thousands of jobs, and over $25 million in city tax revenues in 2006.
“Absolutely we can reach Austin’s level! It’s inevitable,” said Mosher. “I’m on a mission to change things. A lot of people are involved.”
He explained that it took Austin twenty years for its music industry to blossom, and Salem could use Austin’s expertise to attract musical talent and prevent what currently exists from fleeing.
“There are so many bands and people who desire to see this stuff without going out of town. They are willing to spend their money here, hang out here. We should let it develop,” said Hoffman. “People don’t know the extent to which [changing the rules] can make a difference, what power music has.”
Tesler said that one of the biggest complaints she receives it that Salem doesn’t have a scene.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.
Vickie Woods, director of Community Development for the City of Salem, said she hasn’t received any proposals.
“I’d love to sit down with them and find out what they need. We sure want to encourage vibrant music and dance downtown and work out correctly the residences and live music venues,” she said.
She added that funds are available from Urban Renewal to improve buildings, and that the ultimate decision regarding noise levels is up to City Council.
“So, come to City Council and talk,” she advised.
Joey Kendall, an Austin based musician, performed at The Space on April 19 with the band Mount Righteous.
“I hope they can crack the code on this. Ya’ll gotta protect your culture! That’s more important than anything!” he said.
Editor’s Note: An update to for this story is available at Noise ordinance debate paused for 45 days