In case you haven’t heard, Asheville is in the middle of a clamorous debate.
What started in 2018 as an effort to update the city’s noise ordinance has led to an impasse among different community factions concerning the specifics. In its current form, the draft ordinance would use decibel readings to validate nonresidential noise complaints and set daytime and evening limits while requiring venues to apply for exceedance permits based on the number of events they host per year.
And while the law would apply to all properties within the city limits, downtown Asheville, home to the largest number of bars, restaurants, music venues and event spaces, might bear the brunt of the revisions. Music industry professionals fear the proposed changes could restrict downtown businesses and culture; meanwhile, some residents say the ordinance doesn’t go far enough to protect the health of those living in and around the central business district.
Despite the lack of consensus, however, on June 1 the Public Safety Committee — consisting of Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith and Council members Kim Roney and Sandra Kilgore — unanimously approved sending the proposed ordinance to City Council for review and a possible vote by midsummer.
Key concerns, including the allowable decibel levels and specified enforcement mechanisms, are still being hashed out. And in the meantime, the issue has ignited a fierce debate over downtown’s future, calling into question the ability of Asheville’s entertainment industry to peaceably coexist with nearby residents as the city continues to grow.
A bold vision
Although the local economy is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, a walk down almost any downtown street on a Friday night reveals a bustling city that’s brimming with tourists and residents alike. But it wasn’t always that way, says Pat Whalen, president of Public Interest Projects. The downtown development and investment company was founded by noted philanthropist Julian Price, who died in 2001.
“I moved here in 1976, and Asheville was a pretty quiet place,” remembers Whalen. “Downtown was pretty dead. A lot of the buildings were boarded up, and at 5 o’clock nobody was downtown. It was like you could bowl down the sidewalks if you wanted.”
Whalen was working as Price’s attorney when he was asked to help direct some of his client’s fortune into revitalizing downtown. Beginning in the ’90s, Whalen says Price began buying and renovating neglected downtown buildings through the newly formed Public Interest Projects, aiming to lure both visitors and locals downtown.
In cooperation with the city, the Asheville Downtown Association and other visionaries and dreamers, Price and Whalen worked to turn the upper floors of their buildings into apartments while investing in both new and existing street-level businesses. The recipients included such downtown fixtures as Malaprop’s Bookstore and the Laughing Seed Café. Despite the naysayers who claimed that no one would want to live downtown, what evolved in the following decades was a level of success that Whalen says the two men never imagined.
“It was great: People loved the idea of living downtown, and our apartments rented really quickly,” he recalls. “We were trying to create this mix of businesses that would attract people to live downtown. It’s kind of ironic now, but that was the goal, and that’s still the goal.”
Today, roughly 1,500 people live in downtown Asheville in a diverse array of swanky condos, newly constructed apartments and renovated older buildings, and Asheville regularly receives accolades for being both a music-friendly destination and a livable city. As a result, both property values and noise levels have risen steadily.
By 2018, growing numbers of residents in and around downtown were calling on the city to update its noise ordinance, which hasn’t seen major revisions since 2000; the existing law, they maintained, had failed to protect them from the noise generated by commercial properties.
In 2019, the Development Services Department, led by its director, Ben Woody, hosted an extensive schedule of public engagement sessions aimed at understanding community concerns and taking suggestions for possible solutions.
But even as those efforts collided head-on with the COVID-19 pandemic, work on the ordinance continued. Last December, the city released a draft that was withdrawn after music industry professionals sharply criticized the recommended penalties for venues that exceeded the proposed decibel limits.
The current draft would limit daytime sound limits in the central business district to no more than 75 decibels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., decreasing to 65 decibels after that. Music venues could apply for up to 30 exceedance permits per year that would allow up to 85 decibels, measured at the sound receiver’s property rather than the venue’s property line.
The sounds of silence
Despite Woody’s efforts to help community stakeholders reach consensus, disagreements remain.
Rick Freeman, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, says the proposed 75 decibel daytime limit doesn’t go far enough to protect downtown residents and those living adjacent to commercial districts from potentially harmful sound.
“Sixty-five decibels is just a number to most people, but that’s the equivalent of having people with a brisk conversation on your back deck all night long,” he explains. “And 70 and 75 is like a vacuum cleaner running full throttle in your backyard all day. Those are the things that we think are just inappropriate and unhelpful.”
CAN recommends cutting the daytime level to 72, with additional evening and late night reductions. Those changes might seem minor, but Freeman says even a small rise in decibels can significantly boost the potential for hearing damage. He cites a 1999 World Health Organization study that said continued exposure to excessive noise can negatively impact children’s development and increase the risk of diseases including cardiovascular illness and diabetes.
Jessica Tomasin, who manages Echo Mountain recording studio, takes a different view. She says Asheville Music Professionals, a nonprofit she co-founded, has been in discussions with both CAN and the city to ensure that the proposed ordinance is fair to Asheville’s multimillion-dollar entertainment sector.
“We started having these conversations in early 2019, because as Asheville Music Professionals and as an industry, we believe the noise ordinance can be a good thing,” Tomasin explains. “And if we want to be considered a legitimate music city, then that’s something that definitely comes with that territory.”
While conceding that the city is within its rights to consider new sound limits, however, she maintains that music venues have received extra scrutiny because they’re one of the few noise sources that residents can hold accountable.
“There’s a lot of things they can’t control, like drunk people, like cars. Construction is another thing,” Tomasin points out. “I can imagine how frustrating that must be, especially if you’re somebody who works from home. If we’re talking about a power drill that’s going at 130 decibels all day, when it finally stops at 6 o’clock, I’m sure you want it to be quiet. But then is it really fair to penalize music because you can’t control the drill?”
Welcome to the neighborhood
Whalen says he doesn’t receive many noise complaints from renters in the buildings his company manages, but he has seen an increase in complaints by downtown condo owners. Bob Clifford says he’s lived in a condo off Church Street for the past 10 years and that while the area is getting noisier, that just comes with the territory.
“Most of the increase has been pedestrian flow to and from the South Slope, and there’s no controlling that. If people are drunk at 2 a.m. and feel the need to yell, they do. I enjoy being able to walk everywhere. But at the same time, I’m aware that that comes with a bit of a cost.”
Nevertheless, Clifford does support the idea of a decibel-based ordinance to help regulate the sound from area businesses.
Allison Simpkins, who’s lived downtown for the last four years, says a desire to be in the center of the action was why she decided to move to the central business district.
“One of the main reasons we moved from the outskirts of town is that we wanted to be in walkable proximity to breweries, restaurants and music,” she explains. “If we wanted to be away from the Pubcycle, music and mobile comedy tours, we would’ve stayed in Woodfin.”
But Steve Levenberg, who owns a condo in The Aston, says he’s concerned about Rabbit Rabbit, an open-air venue on Coxe Avenue that opened last August. It’s just a block away from the historic residence, and there’s a direct sightline from his unit to the stage. Although Rabbit Rabbit has yet to actually host a concert, Levenberg maintains that it’s a game-changer for downtown residents. The sound coming from the amphitheater, he predicts, will be “overwhelming.”
“It’s a precedent-setter that will, sadly, really affect some downtown property owners’ property values, because you go to sell your property and down the street is Rabbit Rabbit blasting you out of there twice a week,” says Levenberg, who serves on the board of the the 14-unit complex’s homeowners association. “It’s going to have a real negative effect.”
Liz Tallent, a partner in the venture who is Pat Whalen’s daughter, says the club plans to end concerts by 10 p.m., though the ordinance would allow later showtimes with the necessary permits. Tallent also manages The Orange Peel on Biltmore Avenue; both venues were developed by Public Interest Projects.
Tomasin, meanwhile, says that Asheville’s lively music scene and businesses like Rabbit Rabbit are part of what draws people here to begin with. “It’s hard not to see it as a form of privilege,” she argues. “There’s no acknowledgment of the work that was put in that made the property value $500 a square foot.”
The times they are a-changin’
Tomasin and Freeman say their respective organizations, AMP and CAN, have been working closely with each other and with city staff to try to reach agreement on the allowable decibel levels. But so far, “We’ve hit a stalemate,” Freeman reports.
“Lots of people in the music business declared that any noise ordinance at all would be the end of live music in Asheville. There is no proof that that is the case,” he asserts. “And I would just say that we should all work together — not as a result of fear but as a result of respect for each other — and try to find reasonable common ground.”
Tomasin, though, is determined to make sure that music venues get a fair shake. “We want to be good neighbors; we want to be able to negotiate in good faith. But at some point, we have to be able to fight for our industry. We bring a lot of money to this town, and we employ a lot of people who live here. We make up the second-biggest sector in the creative jobs in this community. It’s worth fighting for, and it’s worth making some considerations for.”
To that end, she says, Asheville Music Professionals plans to collect decibel readings from around town to help educate City Council and members of the public so they can make informed decisions about whether the proposed levels are reasonable for downtown businesses. For his part, however, Freeman says CAN plans to pressure Council members to lower the decibel limits by reminding them of their responsibility for their constituents’ health and safety.
Whalen, meanwhile, points out that Julian Price’s original vision was of a downtown where local businesses and residents coexisted.
“I think it’s a little hard for somebody if they bought a condo, particularly if things change around them. Our goal for Asheville has always been that it would be this great urban, livable place. And reading some of these condo owners’ comments, it doesn’t sound very livable. But it is an urban place. And to be a city means we’re going to keep evolving and growing, and that’s going to cause some more of these tensions.”