Martha's Vineyard town wrestles with summer music scene
Photo by Susan Safford
A tangled web of licenses, policies, and procedures allows widely differing levels of noise at different times, and makes compliance with noise regulations confusing and difficult, according to Oak Bluffs restaurant and bar owners, musicians, and police.
The result is enduring friction between homeowners asserting their right to peace and quiet, and business owners trying to attract customers in the heart of a commercial district of a summer tourist town, with the board of selectmen trying constantly to mediate audio peace.
Alcohol licenses and entertainment licenses issued by the selectmen, who serve as the licensing authority, sometimes contradict each other and sometimes allow certain hours for entertainment in one establishment and different hours in the establishment next door.
Church services, concerts, and other events at the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association Campground, where many of the noise complaints originate, routinely use amplified music that would violate town bylaws if the same event were held elsewhere.
Selectmen have no authority to regulate noise in town parks. That is the responsibility of the parks commission. In theory, park commissioners could authorize a heavy metal concert in Sunset Park, abutting the campgrounds, while selectmen ban an acoustic guitar with a small amplifier at a harbor bar.
"Clearly there's a lot of room for complete revision of the noise ordinance," town administrator Michael Dutton said. "That's what we should be doing."
Doug Abdelnour, who manages Nancy's restaurant on Oak Bluffs Harbor, pleaded with selectmen at a recent meeting to clarify the issue.
"There aren't any rules or regulations or guidelines for us to follow," Mr. Abdelnour said. "The bands, the cops, the campgrounds, nobody knows what's right and wrong. Something has got to be done quick."
Battle of bands
Over the past several summers, outdoor entertainment on Oak Bluffs Harbor became a source of friction between neighboring bar owners, visiting tourists, and residents who live near the harbor.
"It's out of control," selectman Gail Barmakian said at the May 24 meeting of the selectmen. After meeting with homeowners and business owners over the past several months, she presented a proposal for a new noise policy covering outdoor entertainment. She said she found most other communities ban all outdoor entertainment. The policy she presented would ban amplified outdoor entertainment in Oak Bluffs.
"There shall be no amplified outdoor entertainment but for televisions and background music broadcast from a radio/CD sound system," the suggested policy reads. "No unreasonable noise shall be audible under any circumstances upon the sidewalk adjoining the premises or upon any abutting premises."
The policy leaves police no discretion in handling noise complaints. "The board (of selectmen) shall determine in its sole discretion unreasonable noise."
After a lengthy discussion near the end of a three-hour meeting, and with the Memorial Day Weekend three days away, selectmen could not agree on the new policy. Instead they adopted a temporary ban on outdoor amplified music until June 14, the date of their next regular meeting, where they will take up the issue again.
Ms. Barmakian's proposal is a significant change from the current complaint procedure, clearly outlined in the Oak Bluffs policy for granting entertainment licenses. That policy requires police to investigate every noise complaint, file a report, and notify the town administrator. The police chief and town administrator can recommend that selectmen hold a hearing to review complaints against an individual establishment. The police chief and the town administrator can, at their discretion, also opt to handle the complaints within the police department with an informal warning. That can leave some with the impression that their complaint is not being heard or addressed, creating a whole new problem for selectmen.
Oak Bluffs police lieutenant Tim Williamson said discretion is important. In some cases, complaints are called in by business competitors, or someone with a personal vendetta. He said police are sometimes frustrated when they investigate valid complaints.
"We've gone out and corroborated complaints, brought it before the board of selectmen, and the selectmen give them a pass," Lt. Williamson said. "Usually by the time it gets to selectmen, they've had a couple of warnings. Selectmen have discretion, too. So does the judge down at court."
Ms. Barmakian's proposal is also more restrictive than current bylaws and town polices. In her proposal, no noise could go beyond the property line. But the bylaw says noise is not allowed "where the noise is plainly audible at a distance of one hundred and fifty (150) feet from the building, structure, vehicle or premises in which or from which it is produced." The bylaw covers noise of any kind after 11 pm and before 8 am.
The Oak Bluffs policy on alcohol beverage control sets yet a different standard.
"The licensing authority recognizes the right of neighboring property owners to the quiet enjoyment of their homes or businesses," the policy states. "A violation ... shall be deemed to occur if noise is clearly audible at a distance of 100 feet away from the inside or outside source at any time of day or night." The policy also requires establishments to keep doors, windows, and skylights closed to limit noise.
Popular local musician Mike Benjamin has played music at several harbor establishments for more than a decade and counts the engagements as a significant part of his income. He said he had to cancel several performances already booked for May and June, after selectmen imposed a temporary ban on amplified music. "That's $600 out of my pocket," Mr. Benjamin said. He also said other musicians in his band were out a total of $1,400. "We lost three weekends."
Mr. Benjamin is frustrated at the way town officials react to noise complaints.
"I think it's a few squeaky wheels," Mr. Benjamin said. "Everybody allowed these businesses to be built, and invest in them, I assume, hoping to make the harbor a lively place. If they want to make a quiet, sleepy harbor, they should have restaurants that close at 9 pm."
He is also frustrated that the proposed regulation divides music into two basic categories, amplified and acoustic.
"The blanket ruling saying no amplified music doesn't solve the problem," Mr. Benjamin told selectmen at their May 24 meeting. "I could come down there with 20 trumpets and five drum sets, and it would be louder than I've ever played. The level of noise is the issue."
Mr. Benjamin proposed a compromise to allow entertainment on the harbor.
"Ending outdoor amplified music at sunset is reasonable, I could live with it," Mr. Benjamin said. "I think some decibel level is reasonable, and it's not as tricky as everybody thinks."
Mr. Benjamin has organized a petition drive, and encouraged music lovers to attend the next meeting of selectmen. Ellen Duncan of Edgartown, in a letter to the editor of The Times, said she was disappointed when she visited the harbor over the Memorial Day weekend.
"My sister and I couldn't wait to sit in the sun, along the water, with summer friends and hear a band," Ms. Duncan wrote. "It was explained that Oak Bluffs had put in an ordinance preventing amplified music. What? Music on a Sunday afternoon is part of the summer fun."
For others, music on the harbor is an annoyance that keeps them away from local establishments. Oak Bluffs native Amy Billings said, unlike past summers, she enjoyed recent weekend visits to several harbor establishments.
"After working inside all day on a beautiful day, I want to go sit outside and have a drink and have dinner," Ms. Billings said. "I thought it was all very pleasant. Each restaurant had their own [background] music playing. It certainly was nice not to have it blasting. To have live music out there is crazy, it's just too loud."