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Houston's Cryptic New Noise Ordinance

Confusing new law has bar and club owners screaming.

"[The noise ordinance] sends a pretty bad message to touring bands, agents and labels," says Lemons. "From an out-of-state agent's perspective, why would you run the risk of driving your roster into the ground or in debt over something like this?"

Thanks to the passage of the United States Noise Pollution and Abatement Act of 1972, Houston, like hundreds of other cities around the nation, has legislation that specifies the allowable amount of sound (usually measured in decibels) that can cross property lines. Unlike laws in other cities, however, the Bayou City's version has experienced its share of controversy.

On October 13, 2006, following a noise complaint from neighbors, a fiery melee went off at the old Walter's on Washington between HPD officer G.M. Rodriguez (who allegedly discharged his Taser at three people), Adam Stephens of the kick-back, San Francisco-based folk band Two Gallants and several crowd members.

Houston City Council member Ed Gonzalez, who voted in favor of the new ordinance, thinks that Council should take another look at the law. Gonzalez, a former musician, also suggests the creation of entertainment districts in no-zoning Houston.
Photo by Marco Torres
Houston City Council member Ed Gonzalez, who voted in favor of the new ordinance, thinks that Council should take another look at the law. Gonzalez, a former musician, also suggests the creation of entertainment districts in no-zoning Houston.
Josh Sanders of the Greater Houston Entertainment Coalition Political Action Committee is ­demanding a redo on a law that many are calling unfair and heavy-handed.
Photo by Marco Torres
Josh Sanders of the Greater Houston Entertainment Coalition Political Action Committee is ­demanding a redo on a law that many are calling unfair and heavy-handed.

Today, Joshua Sanders, a registered lobbyist who's the official consultant and spokesman for the Greater Houston Entertainment Coalition Political Action Committee, views Houston's situation as "not working for anyone."

"Club owners don't know what they need to do, there are no objective measures for either the clubs or the police to go by and the police have to be frustrated that these things are taking up so much of their time," says Sanders. "Some of these complaints eat up 45 minutes for two officers. They've got more important things to do."

Critics are also up in arms over what they call unnecessary and heavy-handed crackdowns. This includes the February 8 detainment of DJ Badbwoy BMC at Mango's, as well as a disturbing incident on January 27 outside a private venue — while addressing a noise complaint, an HPD officer cocked his shotgun and advanced toward the crowd.

Sanders, who has worked with City of Houston agencies in the past, says the ultimate goal of the PAC, which formed in late January in response to the revised ordinance, is to draft new legislation and pass it.

"One of the things we realized almost as soon as we started looking at the problem is that we need to be a resource for the city," explains Sanders. "I think the city understands the situation is far from perfect. So if we want to see a change in the ordinance, we have to do some homework for the city."

According to Sanders, some tutelage is definitely needed for local police officers, especially after an HPD captain told Sanders that bar owners "will understand what compliance is when they get enough tickets."
_____________________

"It was almost surreal," says Fitzgerald's co-owner Omar Afra. "The doorman came and said the police were outside wanting to talk to me. When I got out there, they asked if we had live music tonight and I said 'yes.' They handed me a ticket through the window — already had it ready — and never even got out of the car. No investigation, no nothing."

"They're attacking our livelihood," adds Afra, who is in no mood to mince words or play nice after receiving a drive-by ticket on March 9 during an "absurdly quiet" night at the 35-year-old music venue in the Heights.

Afra, who is active in the PAC and plans to plead not guilty, says that he's spent more than $10,000 on soundproofing improvements, including construction of a short hallway and a second door leading to the back patio.

Like other club owners, he is baffled by the meaning of "compliance." In his words, he also hates that police don't need a formal complaint to issue a ticket based on what Afra calls "probable cause."

"You could be bothering nobody," says Afra. "Fitzgerald's has been here a long time and we have made a point of having a close relationship with the residents around us. I don't think it's our neighbors filing complaints."

Ethan Minshew, general manager of Kung Fu Saloon, is also stupefied on the meaning of compliance. He says that on October 13 — the day after the ordinance passed — cops nailed the Washington Avenue bar for a noise violation. Not for a live band, a DJ or for loud music on the venue's outdoor seating area (Kung Fu doesn't boast exterior speakers), but for the collective volume of people talking on the patio.

"It wasn't and still isn't entirely clear as to why we got the ticket that evening," says Minshew, who went to court, paid the fine and accepted deferred adjudication instead of fighting the ticket.

"We don't want anyone to plead guilty," explains the PAC's Sanders about the post-citation legal route he's telling each violator to take. "We've learned that neighbors will be able to use any guilty pleas to contest liquor licenses. So we're recommending that anyone who gets a ticket ask for a deference."

Matthew Festa, a professor at South Texas College of Law who has expertise in noise-ordinance issues, adds that due to the law's troublesome language, it would be difficult to convict an offender in court.

"The law isn't so over-broad that it's plainly unconstitutional, but it does give a concerning amount of discretion to the enforcers," he says.

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51 comments
Screaming_Monk
Screaming_Monk

I beg to differ with your comment on how actually measuring sound levels is ridiculous vs someone standing there and passing judgement based on what they hear. Every human is different in what they perceive as loud. One person may be more sensitive to certain frequencies than another. Which has and can skew a listening experience. A db meter is constant, precise, can be calibrated on the spot, and does not pass judgement just because that guy on the mic is singing waaaay out of key or they "think" it's too loud. db meters also quite commonly have multiple settings on them called weighting and some of these weightings do take into account sub frequencies. A simple $100 meter from Radio Shack will do this as most of the high end devices used today. I know this, for I am a sound engineer and have to frequently use them on shows ranging from a crowd of a few hundred to thousands. I agree that the lack of zoning laws here make it difficult for a homeowner to live in a place where a bar could very well open up next door, but a careful review of this ordinance law could help establish some more defined guidelines for all to follow. Whether it's a property line reading, an LEQ measurement over time, an averaged multiple peak reading, or a combination of several things, something can and should be put in writing so that club/bar owners and homeowners know why and when these laws and tickets are coming....

Brian
Brian

"used crack vials and condoms" whoever said that is full of shit. Those bars were in Montrose along time ago and the drug of choice among the "hipsters" in Montrose is not crack. That's a disgusting and gross exaggeration. They make it sound like its a free for all down here and Houston is NOT like that. We're not L.A. not N.Y. not D.C. and it just goes to show police can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

DaSilence
DaSilence

I think this is great. Without zoning in Houston, noise is an issue for many families. Bars and venues can pop up in residential areas and residents have no say so, no protection, and property values plummet. For the uneducated who just want to slam police, measuring noise with devices is even more ridiculous than using the audible criterion. Noise standards measurable on devices put little or no criteria on bass, the most aggravating and the hardest to abate noise nuisance factors. It is great to see that the police is willing to stand up for residents, and not business. Those of you who think this is a disgrace, particularly the members of the PAC, and the bar owners, who all live in deed restricted, gated communities, just send me your address. I will be happy to drive my car to your house, at, lets say 1:30 am on Saturday, and let my subwoofer do the talking.

Hootiewhobaca RO
Hootiewhobaca RO

There is nothing confusing about this law its just an excuse for the police to do whatever they want. Its like getting pulled over because you or the car you drive looks suspicious. It's more unconstitutional than cryptic. This ordinance is anti-business plain and simple. Cops have always done whatever they want this is nothing new but pulling a shotgun on someone is outrageous. Before this ordinance was passed they were supposed to provide a reading from a decible meter but it didn't matter if you were standing right next to that officer with your own meter and both of them were reading under what was considered to be a violation of the law and they'd shut you down anyway. I'm glad they've decided to take another look at the poor decision our public servants agreed to pass 13-1. The article states that Councilman Gonzalez voted for the ordinance yet he is the one who asked to take another look at the matter. Its tough to say whether he blindly votes on issues that graze his desk or that he is actually taking time to consider the real impact on Houston's economy, ant the prejudice and unfairness that is a direct result of allowing nothing but discretion. It seems like the guy in Montrose (not The Montrose-- hipsters below) who apparently made a ridiculous number of complaints was bitching more about public sexual activity and illicit drug use in his neighborhood than loud noise coming from a liscensed establishment. Attaching sex and drugs to music being played too loud because sex drugs and rock and roll sound good together is a stretch. You can't connect those three things and then equate them without making a jump. Most of the establishments along Westheimer between Shepherd and Lousiaana were there long before he moved there. Does anyone remember when Westfest wasn't confined to a block before it vanished? A solution proposed by Mr. Gonzalez is to create districts in a city with no zoning laws. What about residences that border one of these districts? I agree that people should be able to have peace and quiet in the privacy of their own home but it shouldn't be at the expense of others. People choose where they want to live but why did the cry baby from Montrose put his tail between his legs and moved-- Didn't he get what he wanted? Our city council members should have supported local businesses from the beginning. The notion that this is some type of money maker for the city to make up for red light cameras (which still aren't down) is bullshit. This is an attack on the arts, local business, musicians, and people going out to have a good time. In a city of over 4 million this should not be anywhere near the top of any police officer's list of things to do. Who is being served and what is being protected?

Jeff Schmitz
Jeff Schmitz

So you moved down to Montrose area and you can't believe there is a live music and or a bar scene @ night?

Hey "Frank" you really look like you belong more in Sugarland anyways thanks for playing and enjoy the burbs ya hick!!!

HM
HM

1.) I live within earshot of Fitzgerald's, and they've never been a problem. Onion Creek's chili cookoffs and crawfish boils are actually louder (which has also never been a problem).

2.) "At the same time, the pro-ordinance side, which includes homeowners and apartment dwellers trying to coexist in mixed-use neighborhoods, has grown tired of finding used crack vials and condoms on their lawns." What? That has nothing to do with the music venues, and everything to do with you moving into a neighborhood that's attempting to go through the gentrification process. The crack heads were there before you got there, and they're not frequent concert goers.

Disgusted
Disgusted

Yet another reason why Houston is lame and can't generate any type of unique music scene. This was going on in the early 90s with the -85db nonsense with HPD officers running around Montrose with meters measuring sound. You have to ask who is making the complaints? If you bought a condo or house in the neighborhood because you think it's "cool" then you have to be aware there are things that define it. Noisy weekend nights are part of it. Why not just stay in the suburbs and watch the ducks in your community pond?

Anse
Anse

If somebody proposed a new highrise for Montrose, would folks accept it? Probably not. But living two or three stories above the nightclubs and restaurants is the best way to keep above the noise and foot traffic, and the problem of people destroying your yard is solved, too. I think zoning is desperately needed in Houston, but when is that going to happen? There's got to be some kind of compromise. This ordinance is obviously not working.

Gerontion
Gerontion

I, as a single mom, 'get' being bothered by noise close into town. In my midtown apartment lives a small segment of the fratty, louder generation of 21-34, whose penchant for neanderthal communication consists of whooping and yelling, and keeps us awake til 3am on weekends. Still, I won't really blame them, though they are fools. I vote with my feet, with my ballot and otherwise I lob eggs into their parties just for fun in between. You don't go to the kitchen and complain about the heat, after all.

Great, balanced article by the way, Steve.

John Blake Arnold
John Blake Arnold

A disgruntled guy buys a house one street off of Westheimer at Montrose and is surprised by trash in his yard!?! He didn't know there were all-night businesses and major bars in walking distance in every direction!?! For over 40 years!?! Then, because he made a completely idiotic decision if actually wanted peace and quiet, he gets confrontational with business owners who pay this city's taxes. Which group of people makes more money for the City of Houston: some bitchy land owners or many small businesses? This is nothing but a land grab by developers using HPD as shock troops to move historic, long standing commercial enterprises off their now incredibly valuable land. Washington Ave. used to be a freaking ghetto, bars were welcomed as a tax base. Now they're targeted for their land ownership so more of these crap ass condos with bitchy rich people can live close in. And they donate to these politicians, so the politicians take their side and send in the cops with no clear law, and eventually they suffocate the small businesses so the developers can put up more crap ass track condos. This should be no different than the Occupy WallStreet Movement. If the powers that be are already in the pocket of mega-business, then I suggest that we take it underground and make them regret destroying the livelihoods of small business owners and musicians. Make it cost them some money out of their pockets. Vote the fuckers out.

Ramon LP4 Medina
Ramon LP4 Medina

Simply put law should be based on fact, not opinion.

This is easily the dumbest law enacted by the city of Houston. You should require more than an just officer's opinion - anyone who disagrees should simply ask themselves if they would like the city to begin issuing speeding tickets under the same "standards."

And by the way, I call bullshit on Inselbuch's whole the "I found condoms and crack pipes and blah blah blah" in my yard. First off, that has nothing to do with the issue. But more to the point, people with an axe to grind against any nightlife in Houston have been making those claims for decades but in the three decades I've been here, I've never seen that and I was here in the 80s when the claims would at least have seemed plausible. I say before you print that kind of rubbish you ask them to collect all these things they claim exist on their lawn. I'll buy it then but as far as I can tell, it's a myth or at best an exaggeration based on a few experiences.

chris
chris

officer on stand, under oath- '' it was too loud'' defense lawyer-'' how loud is too loud?'' answer-''it was too loud '' lawyer -'' how loud was that ?? answer '' it was loud'' ok everyone- this will not hold up in court, ever, the subjective nature of 500 dollar fines in regards to what someone thinks , with no complaint being made, is in direct conflict with this countries legal system. and how loud is too loud , I always believed 85 db past a certain time was the cutoff, and the officers used to have to use a meter , and now through their superior training and intelect, they just know -- 100% bullshit ... take it to trial...

Camismith
Camismith

Josh Sanders is a tool. That needs to be said.

j lawrence
j lawrence

The comments in the article about zoning are some of the dumbest I have ever read. In cities with zoning - Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, DC, Pittsburgh, Cleveland - people live adjacent to bars and restaurants; some even live OVER bars and restuarants. In all those cities they live a hell of a lot closer to noise sources than in Houston. But the perennial Houston excuse - it's all because we have no zoning - lame, lame, lame.

Christina Lynn Hildebrand
Christina Lynn Hildebrand

One thing I have slowly but surely noticed is that some of the former big names (and I say big because they are big to me:-) are now not coming to houston. A few months ago I saw a flock of seagulls and animotion at stereolive on westheimer. Guess what? Now none of those types of acts are coming to local clubs like that. It kinda saddens me. I saw them back in september and then in october they pass this law. I do think this is sending shockwaves in the music community more than we think and its gonna send further shockwaves if this law is not repealed or made more reasonable.

H_e_x
H_e_x

How does one go about challenging a ticket in court? Because the officer does not need a decibel meter, it is just their word against the word of the club owner. There is nothing to look back on and challenge in court. I'm no lawyer, but that doesn't sound exactly constitutional to me.

Danielle Stephens
Danielle Stephens

I'd rather hear the noise coming from these bars than people on their Harleys revving up at all hours of the night. Hate those things.

Barflys
Barflys

Pro-bar types are typically renters with no sense of the neighborhood's history and that some of the residents remember when the neighborhood was "residential" and quiet. Its much easier to pack your dufflebag and flop elsewhere than to leave a home you've been in for 40 years. Try watching your neighborhood (inwhich you're invested,) deteriorate thanks to mixed-used BS and no-zoning and your property's value plumet and you'd dance to a different tune. Hard to care about those values when all that matters is who's the hottest DJ at the club.

lakerdave
lakerdave

I love Boondocks. I wish it was louder.

Chris Hutto
Chris Hutto

What the hell is a crack vial? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that Inselbuch is a freaking liar and a whiny little bitch. I'm sure that he is much happier now out in Kingwood or Katy and I am going to miss him greatly. And I think that we should start calling the Noize Cops every time we hear a car drive by. Perhaps it would give them a chance to hone their acute hearing skills. FTP

Soylent_Gringo
Soylent_Gringo

...charged with "generating sound causing others to be aware of vibrations or resonance."

seems to me that a half-ass lawyer could make the argument that anytime anyone hears anything, they are very much aware of 'vibrations' and/or 'resonance'. except in a vacuum (where a great many of our so called leaders appear to reside), sound, no matter how soft, is vibrations in air. jesus titty fucking christ, where do they come up with this shit?

Blake Whitaker
Blake Whitaker

I'm a resident of the same block of Lovett that Inselbuch lives on (and a Houston Press staff member). The patrons leaving the bars in the area can be a little loud. There is occasional peeing in the street.

But I've never once found drug paraphernalia in my yard. In the two years I've been on that block, I think I've found condom in the street.

There is noise from time to time. But it doesn't bother me too much - I moved one block off a major street in an (unofficial) entertainment district. Why would I expect anything else, or attempt to ruin the party? If I wanted something quieter, or with less foot traffic, I would have chosen a different neighborhood, or a sleepier part of Montrose.

skquinn
skquinn

What I can't get is what the heck was wrong with the old noise ordinance? Who lobbied for a new one that essentially gives the pigs the right to selectively shut down music venues they dislike?

Tivigol9
Tivigol9

FUCK THE NOISE ORDINANCE!!!!!!!!!!!

Marc Brubaker
Marc Brubaker

"a fiery melee went off at the old Walter's on Washington between HPD officer G.M. Rodriguez (who allegedly discharged his Taser at three people)"

Allegedly? Ok, I know that might be how you have to word it. But there's video evidence of Rodriguez discharging his Taser.

Deana Rouse
Deana Rouse

This Noise Ordinance is ridiculous. If you don't want to hear music playing, please don't live in or go to Montrose, Midtown, Heights. I moved to Montrose knowing that I would hear music coming from Mango's on occaission. I cannot hear the music in my home. What is the big deal?! As the saying goes "If it's too loud, you're too old!"

Rocky Alvarado
Rocky Alvarado

It's BS like this that keeps Houston's reputation as a cultural stink-hole. Right now there is a great scene of local musicians and artists, but they can't truly flourish in this sort of environment. I hope these businessmen can make some headway and stay in business because guys like Omar Afra have been vital to live music in this city. And a great live music, art, and culture scene can be quite beneficial to a city. Just ask Austin, who has turned culture into the driving force behind the city's popularity which has drawn businesses, jobs, and turned it into the fastest growing city in the state.

H_e_x
H_e_x

I think cops in some areas, not sure about Houston in particular, can and do give out speeding tickets based on nothing more than their discretion. Point still stands, of course, but it does indeed get that crazy.

Ramon LP4 Medina
Ramon LP4 Medina

I think you gave yourself away there Barfly - the issue was the Noise Ordinance, not your property's value or what you think makes for a good neighborhood. The issue here is whether or not this is a good law. If by having no empirical basis by which to enforce a standard, your goal is to shut down these local businesses (which really seems to be your goal) then this law succeeds.

If on the other hand, like me, you think the goal of a noise ordinance should be to create some standard that will allow business owners to get along with their neighbors for the betterment of the community, then this ordinance clearly fails. Imagine if you will a lower DB meter standard for your neighborhood - wouldn't you love that? See by setting a threshold that can be measured, venues could invest in appropriate soundprooofing becasue they would know what is required of them to the letter much like a fire code or any other local code. That would move to reducing complaints, help officers move on to more important issues, and make your quality of life better, no? Except that this is not what this ordiance is really about becasue, as people like yourself make it very clear by your comments, it really ISN'T about the noise - it's about the kind of businesses these are and a desire to do away with them.

stedd
stedd

also, the mixed-use thing has what to do with a shitty sound ordinance? and sorry this is houston - you have a right to not be bothered by excessive noise, but if you live near main streets (where there have been bars a lot of the times longer than your sainted homeowners have lived there) you're going to have some noise and neighborhoods are going to change. push for zoning if it bothers you, not an ordinance that shuts down nightlife in this city

stedd
stedd

you realize the condos that the main person complaining lives in are new, right

"Hard to care about those values when all that matters is who's the hottest DJ at the club."

you are painfully out of touch

Daniel Prentice Wilson II
Daniel Prentice Wilson II

What happens when that sleepier part of Montrose has a bar pop up and is loud? This is exactly what happened to me in downtown. I know people will say, well you live downtown get use to the noise. NO we shouldn't have to. I have lived downtown for over 7 years; I am used to the regular noise levels. When a club/bar pops up near residential area they should equip their club/bar with the correct amount of sound barriers. I even called before this club was opened to confirm with the management of the property that noise wouldn’t be a problem. It was fine for about a month…. When your bed and windows are shaking in building that was built in 1936 and you are 11 stories up and 2 blocks away from a club and your windows and bed are shaking there is a problem…Granted the club now doesn't leave their patio doors open (which was the main part of the problem) I can still hear it, I even heard it last night...And now this said club is building a rooftop area. I can't wait for round two. This time I will be calling the police every time I hear the noise and have left a notice to everyone in my building to do the same.

H_e_x
H_e_x

I assumed that, along with the homeless ordinance, it was brought up by yuppy scum who moved into town and couldn't handle everything else that came with living within the loop.

Dtyg
Dtyg

We were in The Heights before the clubs came in.

joel.reger
joel.reger

@Daniel Prentice Wilson II  Your a very boring person, I bet.


Blake
Blake

You live in a sleepier part of downtown? I don't know if that makes sense.

And I'm not sure about the exact rules, but I'm almost certain I could not purchase one of the dollhouses on Hawthorne (two blocks from Lovett, and much quieter) and open up a bar. On Westheimer, though? Or downtown? That's to be expected and should be allowed for, if we want there to be any kind of nightlife in Houston.

But you shouldn't have to deal with completely excessive noise, true. If that is what you're facing, any reasonably ordinance should allow for you to address that. And I think that's what the "pro-bar" people want as well - a reasonable ordinance.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Thank you for trying to kill clubs in Houston.You are right, no one should ever be disturbed, ever, especially while living downtown in the 4th largest city in the United States.

Geezy
Geezy

The point is that this is the entire problem with the new ordinance law. You are basically taking the method of having to prove the music was too loud by using a decibel meter versus giving some overzealous police officer the authority to say "hey, your musics too loud- here's a 1K ticket. Now fuck off".

Giving officers this type of discretion is dangerous to all parties involved and can result in a situation like the Rodriguez one.

I believe that was the OP's point.

Marc Brubaker
Marc Brubaker

My point is that it should be somewhere on this cop's record that he discharged his Taser at innocent people. There's no "allegedly" about it.

That incident is a massive black mark on the music scene here, one of which out of town musicians and managers are aware. It shouldn't be forgotten or whitewashed. What it should be is countered with thousands of tales of better nights of music in this town, and the build towards a reputation of providing a good concert experience and treating music and musicians properly.

We're in the process of that. This current noise ordinance, however, is a massive step in the wrong direction. Hopefully the people of this city who love and care about music can get our government to realize that.

Daniel P. Wilson
Daniel P. Wilson

I didn't say there was...they man above me posted about a sleepier part of Montrose...

Blake
Blake

*reasonable ordinance

Jesus, I'm not good at this typing comments thing.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Who would have thought that the downtown area of a city would not be nice and quiet.

Daniel P Wilson
Daniel P Wilson

I am not trying to kill clubs. Clubs should have better sound barriers installed...And no one should be disturbed to the point where you can't sleep and you can actually fell the music.

White Lightnin'
White Lightnin'

No, his point was that the Press used the word "alleged." And then he said "Ok, I know that might be how you have to word it." So what is his point again?

White Lightnin'
White Lightnin'

I assume if the Press used the word "alleged" there is an ongoing court action involving the officer. As far "on the cop's record," that's HPD/DA biz last I heard. And I seriously doubt there's going to be any improvement in local music scene over placing "used Taser" on an officer's record. Again, the line of your argument is kinda lost.

And if all that blather above was your point, why quibble about "alleged"?

 
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