Austin, The Live Music Capital of the World, Struggles With Noise Complaints

Due to the close proximity of businesses, entertainment venues, residential areas, and hotels in a metropolitan area, noise complaints are a common occurrence in a big city. Without clear and defined regulations in place for noise levels – including specific hours of operation for music and entertainment venues – these complaints can be a constant source of friction between business owners and those living in or visiting a city.

Austin has spent the last three years attempting to codify regulations and create a system of clear expectations for any business that opens or operates in an area where noise complaints might arise, including near a residential area or a hotel. The city’s Music Commission is pushing the City Council to produce an ordinance to clarify expectations and hopefully alleviate tension between the city’s numerous entertainment venues and nightclubs and nearby hotels and residences.

The Live Music Capital of the World

Austin was dubbed the “Live Music Capital of the World ®” in 1991, when it was determined the city had more live music venues per capita than anywhere else in the country. In addition to being the home of over 200 live music venues, Austin annually hosts some of the country’s largest music festivals, including renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits (ACL).

The sheer volume of music venues in a relatively small geographic area was eventually going to lead to issues. In 2015, a newly opened downtown Austin hotel began submitting noise complaints against a nearby nightclub, which had been operating peacefully for years. In mid-2017, it appeared the City Council was on track to create a licensing and penalty system for music venues and nightclubs operating within Austin city limits to address these types of complaints. Objections from leaders in the local hospitality industry and music/entertainment industry, however, derailed these efforts.

Current Laws in Place

The current Austin Code of Ordinance specifies a person may not:

1. Use or permit the use of sound equipment at a business in excess of the decibel limits prescribed by this chapter;
a. in excess of 85 decibels between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., as measured at the property line of the business; or
b. is audible at the property line of the business between 2:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.
2. Make noise or play a musical instrument audible to an adjacent business or residence between 10:30 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.;

Since downtown Austin is packed with music venues, clubs, restaurants, and hotels, these restrictions are very broadly defined for the epicenter of a city built on live music. Creating a more clearly defined set of regulations, including steps for permitting and set guidelines for violations or infractions, could go a long way towards bridging the divide between entertainment venue owners looking to run a successful business and visitors and tourists looking to get a good night’s sleep.

A History of Success With Noise Complaints

The lawyers at Feldman & Feldman have significant experience dealing with noise complaint issues, most recently reaching a successful resolution for Houston residents in relation to White Oak Music Hall. The Greater Heights homeowners’ settlement with White Oak Music Hall included limitations on when and how long shows can be held at the venue. The settlement also prohibited shows on school nights from lasting past 9:30 p.m., along with any outdoor concerts during state STAAR testing. A sound monitoring system was also required, with potential fines reaching up to $15,000 per violation. These regulations have measurably improved the relationship between the residents of this area and the music venue.

Top Sources Of Noise Complaints

Few people understand how disruptive noise pollution is until they experience it firsthand. While noise pollution can occur at any time of the day, many victims experience it at night when they are unable to sleep due to the noise. Noise complaints are a big problem in Houston because the city does not have any zoning laws, meaning businesses can set up shop in the middle of neighborhoods.

The Houston Sound Ordinance

Zoning requirements may not restrict individuals and businesses, but everyone is expected to abide by the Houston Sound Ordinance. The Houston Sound Ordinance protects citizens from all types of noise, including cars and motor vehicles, music, animals, loud machinery, or any other type of disruptive noise. Sound cannot exceed 65 decibels during the day and 58 decibels during the night in residential areas. Permits can allow businesses to have sound up to 75 decibels until 10pm on Sunday through Thursday and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Top Sources of Noise Complaints

Thousands of noise complaints are made to the City of Houston each year regarding a wide variety of offenders. However, there are a few top offenders that make up most of the sound complaints.

Restaurants and bars are a common source of noise complaints for obvious reasons. These buildings not only house large numbers of people, but they often also feature loud music. Whether the music is live or recorded, it can easily exceed the maximum allowed noise levels. Because these places are often open late, neighbors often lose sleep over noise levels.

Noises complaints are also filed against buildings with noisy generators or HVAC systems. These types of machinery are extremely loud and often operate for hours at a time. All types of buildings, including grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping centers, among many others, utilize these types of machines, but they are still expected to keep noise levels within legal limits.

Specialty businesses, such as mechanics, gun ranges, and construction sites can also produce sound that is well over the legal limit. These locations utilize machines that create a lot of noise and steps must be taken to minimize noise disturbance.

Houston Noise Complaint Lawyers

There is no excuse for disturbing the peace. We have achieved success in multiple high-profile noise complaint cases in Houston. If a business is violating the Houston Sound Ordinance and refuses to abide by legal sound limits, contact Feldman & Feldman today to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys to discuss your legal options.