A panel formed by the City Manager’s office and tasked with reshaping the city’s entertainment rules governing sound limits and license enforcement was met with significant backlash when it presented a litany of proposed changes at last week’s License Commission meeting.
City Hall had apparently been dealing with backlash of a different kind for much longer.
There were 1,399 loud music and 695 loud party complaints received by Worcester Police in 2015, according to department figures. Typically those calls spike in summer, so by October a committee led by city director of planning and regulatory services Stephen S. Rolle, also a License commissioner, was empaneled.
“The committee has grown from some of the feedback we’ve got over the years from folks in different neighborhoods in the city who have been concerned about noise, among other things, from some of the events that have been occurring earlier or later than their permits allow,” city spokesman John F. Hill said.
The purpose of the committee’s rules amendment, according to a proposal filed with the commission, is to establish sound volume limits for live music, find better ways to investigate and resolve complaints, establish a case-by-case process to permit events such as outdoor concerts that generate higher volumes of sound, and to implement new application requirements and approval criteria.
“When we did receive complaints on a particular item, we didn’t feel like we had the proper tools or processes in place,” Rolle said at Thursday’s meeting.
Gary Vecchio, president of the Shrewsbury Street Neighborhood Association, told the Sun in an interview on Friday he sees both sides of the coin. “If the License Commission did their job, and if they went after the places that aren’t doing it right, you wouldn’t even need new regulations.
“On the other hand,” Vecchio added, “the present regulations aren’t clear. So I think you need the new regulations anyway to be fair to everyone — the commission, the businesses and the residents.”
Establishments under present rules can apply for up to 30 one-day liquor licenses for outdoor entertainment. The proposed regulations would limit those licenses to five.
“From the feedback we’ve received from folks, that’s probably the aspect of this that people have the most concern about,” Rolle said.
Paul Giorgio, president of Pagio Inc. and publisher of Pulse Magazine, an entertainment and lifestyle publication, told the Sun on Friday, June 10, he was troubled that the proposed amendment attempts to regulate the amount of traffic a business brings in.
“We’re a city. If we want to grow as a city, we have to recognize that with growth comes noise and comes traffic, and comes an increased tax base. All of these places are in commercial corridors, which are designated as commercial corridors. Shrewsbury Street is a vital, commercial corridor with 40 to 60 restaurants,” Giorgio said.
“[Noise] is something that every city struggles with,” Rolle said.
The proposed amendment would establish a sound limit of 150 feet from the property boundary at all times of the day. For events near a residence, after 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and after 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, the limit would drop to 50 feet.
The proposal uses the term “plainly audible” as the benchmark. Rolle said that was “the only reasonable way an investigator can gauge something when they get a call” regarding a noise complaint.
Springfield has a noise ordinance establishing a “plainly audible” sound limit of 200 feet between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and 100 feet the rest of the time.
Alesia H. Days, associate city solicitor and licensing director in Springfield, said the city’s regulations have presented few challenges outside summer.
“That’s when people are having outside venues. We get a lot of requests for religious services to be held outside. That’s kind of when it heats up is during the summer,” she said.
Unlike Worcester, Springfield has an entertainment district. Days said complaints are fewer because there’s less intermingling with residential areas.
Rolle said Worcester entertainment license holders would be able to apply for an exception to the noise ordinance for outdoor events.
The proposed changes would also give the License Commission power to deny an entertainment application if it means it can “prevent an unreasonable increase in the level of pedestrian or vehicular traffic in the area of the premises or an unreasonable increase in the number of vehicles to be parked in the area of the premises.”
This could be seen as a significant detriment to businesses in mixed residential-commercial neighborhoods like Shrewsbury Street.
“Sometimes when there’s success, there’s consequences to success,” Giorgio said. “If there’s a problem with certain establishments, we have a noise ordinance in the city of Worcester. Enforce it.”
Rolle’s committee, made up of representatives from the Worcester Police Department, city Economic Development office, Department of Inspectional Services, Law Department and City Manager’s office, said in its proposal that it studied noise regulations from more than 50 communities in New England and nationally, including Springfield, Providence and Lowell.
“I think the proposal is fair and equitable,” Vecchio added. “Those businesses that do it the right way have nothing to fear with the proposed ordinances. I think it’s geared towards businesses that haven’t been neighborhood friendly.”