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The innocent-sounding title “Amplified Sound Discussion,”  was already a hot topic before it came before the Salida City Council work session on Monday evening, Feb 14. Ahead of the work session, the city received no less than 147 emails and letters regarding the topic of music in the streets, most of them in support of allowing amplified music outdoors.

Council immediately addressed their intent, trying to put public fears to rest.

“We weren’t trying to drive a stake into the heart of live music. We recognize how important this is,” said Mayor Dan Shore. “Our intent — we sent out a letter to a group of stakeholders identified last fall — venue holders, other interested parties. It was intended to be the starting point of a conversation. We recognized that many in the community felt decisions had already been made. Before decisions are made, community input has to be had.”

The topic of amplified music — allowing it, where it is allowed, for how long, and how loud — became an issue within the historic downtown during the summer of 2021, as the city set up more outside gathering areas as an economic response to COVID-19 indoor restrictions. The city was attempting to support its businesses during a difficult time allowing businesses to apply for a permit to schedule amplified music.

Live Music atop Centennial Tattoo at 110 West First Street in Salida. Merrell Bergin photo

Soon, objections came from Salida residents on the east side of the Arkansas River over the sound from some restaurants on the west side of the river. Other downtown residents said they felt surrounded by competing amplified music from retail shops, the KHEN radio station, restaurants, and louder-than-normal music from outside lounging areas created by the city (outside the traditional bar-entertainment areas) during COVID.

Supporters of amplified music reminded people that the downtown is a Colorado Creative District, and music is part of that definition.

“Last summer we were dealing with COVID, trying to open up the community, but there were people impacted by the sound. That’s part of living in community,” said Shore. “I don’t want to see us get into the mode of vilifying or demonizing others.”

“There is confusion among venue owners,” said City Administrator Drew Nelson. “That was a desire on our part to go down this path with the permit itself and ideas for decibel limits for amplified sound. Everyone has a sensitivity to sound, it’s different for everyone.”

There are 18 summer weeks from May 15 to Sept. 15. Between the first and second iterations of the process last year, the city expanded the total number of administrative permits.

“We looked at as many as 54 permits per entity —  three per week during summer when noise is most active,” said Nelson. “We’re looking at somewhere between 18 and 54 [permits per entity]. We got feedback to make the process as simple as possible, but,” he added, “right now theoretically I could send every permit for amplified sound before council — we have to start somewhere to find out what that number looks like.”

“As a statutory city, all our powers must be enumerated somewhere … Salida has the power to declare what is a nuisance, and any powers that flow from that … We have general noise limitations for residential, commercial, industrial areas and as you are aware, we can issue permits to exempt people from those requirements.” said attorney Elliot Browning. “Someone can apply for a permit to not be subject to the noise limitations. This is based on lots of factors, duration, location, size, and the city administrator has a broad power to issue these, and authority to have a public hearing … the city administrator can issue it with limitations or conditions.”

He went on to add, “this is purely a political decision – we have broad powers to issue permits; this is an attempt to balance the interests of all the stakeholders within the community.”

During the discussion, city council members raised the idea of setting a hard stop at 10:00 p.m., asked about limitations on the type of sound equipment, provisions about arranging the amplification equipment to minimize sound, and whether permits were actually necessary.

“If we drop all noise permits, what would be the rule to interfere if a neighbor fears it’s a nuisance?” asked Council Member Harold Kasper. ” Is it some state rule that takes over – if we don’t issue a permit?”  Browning responded that in this scenario, a neighbor who was affected would have to bring a civil action – not an enforceable City Code compliant.

The state of Colorado has established decibel levels in certain zones. The city’s use of permits would allow Salida to set higher limits than the state allows for outside sound. Nelson pointed out that Salida doesn’t regulate music inside buildings in the middle of winter, nor does it set time limits for inside music unless it’s related to liquor licensing for the establishment. He added that the city knows long before the summer season begins that there will be nine summer days (the four major holiday weekends and FIBArk) when people should expect that there will be music later into the evening.

The council members asked questions about how the sound gets measured.

Unlike amplified music on city streets, neighbors of music in Riverside Park have more of a buffer zone. Featured: Bluegrass on the Arkansas performing in Riverside Park, Salida.

“It gets measured at the receiving property’s property line, but we do this when we get complaints,” said Nelson. “It’s complaint-driven. [Police] Chief Johnson said we had 8,000 calls [for service] last year, so they are busy.”

He went on to point out that the city had picked 85 decibels as its limit (sound above that level can cause hearing damage), the same measurement used in Nashville, Tennessee.

Council Member Jane Templeton reminded members that this discussion applies only to amplified music, not to acoustic (non-amplified) music.

The discussion among council members revealed they don’t have a clear idea of what 85 decibels is, nor do they know how this relates to the levels being experienced in Salida. It was noted that Jamie Wolkenbright has offered to do a sound demonstration for them.

Council discussed raising the number of permits per applicant to 60.

“I don’t think too much music is a thing to solve,” said Council Member Justin Critelli. “It’s a way of gauging the pulse of a community. I’d represent the extreme side of the spectrum. For me, there isn’t too much so we doesn’t need a number put to it.”

Nelson pointed out “the issue is how many should I approve if there is no ability for public feedback? I’m going to struggle with that. I have nothing in the code that says: here’s the level to balance this at… I subject myself to some public flogging… at a certain point it needs to come back and people have the right to be able to express their opinions.”

“I don’t think we should have a limit. I think businesses need to recover,” said Council Member Alisa Pappenfort.

“I disagree. We’ve heard from a lot of residents who say 60 is enough. After that, it should come to us so there is public feedback,” said Templeton, a sentiment with which Council Member Dominique Naccarato agreed, who added that a 10:00 p.m. stop time seemed reasonable.

“We have heard from a lot of the community – the vast majority in support of public music,” said Shore. “We will have more conversation with you … let’s figure out the decibel issue. I know we have people upset about the music, and we’re trying to work with them to the extent we can … those who live in town know it’s going to be louder in town.”

Nelson pointed out, “the Mayor and I have borne the brunt of people being pretty aggressive about this … There were threats of legal action – we spent a lot of time working through those issues.”

“We’re living in a more and more restrictive world and people want freedom about the music,” said Pappenfort. “We need to find a way to minimally deal with this issue.”

Nelson reiterated that “I want a process where people can come and provide you with feedback … the knowledge is what people are looking for — not whether I’ll sign my name to a permit.”

Naccarato asked what would happen if, while the city is cooperative now, “what would happen if we had a city administrator who said no to all the permits?”  This would seem to indicate that putting restrictions in the Code itself, would reduce the amount of judgement calls or personal preferences.  It might hold the elected  Council more accountable for what the City allows based on the wants of all their constituents, not just the squeaky wheels of the moment.

The meeting was a work session, not a public hearing. The council and staff agreed to get additional information, including training on how sound is measured, prior to holding another work session.  In the meantime, amplified music permit applications will continue to be submitted.

Featured image: Musicians performing a soundcheck at Benson’s Tavern & Beer Garden on F Street in Salida.  The outdoor patio is a popular entertainment spot, weather-permitting — throughout the year. Photo courtesy Chaffee County Visitors Bureau.