Requests from residents for the city to enforce the existing noise ordinance has been labeled as a fight to stop nightlife in San Antonio. Residents have been villainized by music lovers, bar owners and the press when they are simply asking that bar owners act responsibly and obey the law.

It was at the direction of the City Council that the Noise Ordinance Task Force, made up of residents, bar and restaurant owners, and city staff began meeting in June to address the noise ordinance as it relates to businesses near neighborhoods, “so residents can have peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their home without having to resort to filing a complaint on their commercial neighbors.”

The ordinance currently limits sound levels to 70 decibels for businesses during operating hours until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10 p.m. other nights. These sound levels are measured at the property line and are limited to 63 decibels after those times. The task force has never proposed anything that would restrict Fiesta activities. The exception in the ordinance for parades and city-sponsored events has not been threatened.

Early on the task force requested that the San Antonio Police Department provide data about the noise calls they receive. From January 2020 to June 2021, SAPD fielded 53,564 calls about noise. During that time they issued only 70 citations. One reason for very few violations is due to SAPD’s practice of giving verbal warnings which are not documented. SAPD admittedly has life-threatening events to deal with which should take priority. That, along with an inadequate supply of noise level meters, results in dismissal of noise complaints.

One action taken by the city manager and supported by the task force is the establishment of a pilot program that uses the city’s code enforcement officers, who are trained and equipped to use decibel meters. A team of six code officers are dedicated specifically for noise complaints on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. Only if meter readings exceed allowable limits is the case referred to SAPD for follow-up action. 

Since the pilot program began on October 7, there has been an increased number of recorded violations and citations for those operating above the decibel limits in our current ordinance. Out of 1,464 calls responded to by Code Compliance, 189 violations were recorded and 99 citations were given. That is 6.8% of code compliance call responses resulting in citations compared to 0.1% previous to the pilot program. The use of Code Officers for this kind of enforcement frees up SAPD officers allowing them to address more serious safety concerns.  

While this started as an issue in specific areas of town it has quickly become evident that noise from businesses is an issue that impacts communities throughout San Antonio. Though a large percentage of noise complaints are from residential situations, the occasional house party does not compare to the weekly, or often nightly, nuisance of a nightclub’s pounding music for hours above the allowable decibel limit. 

There is no disagreement on the task force that most businesses already do comply with the noise ordinance. Residents don’t want bars and clubs to shut down. They want complaints measured and violations enforced under the current code, which business owners on the task force have agreed sets a reasonable limit on noise.  

Residents speaking up about these issues are accused of wanting to live in hip urban areas but not accepting of what goes with living in a city. This implies that “anything goes” is how an urban city neighborhood works. In fact, it is just the opposite. There are thousands of city codes and ordinances that control our lives that do not exist in unincorporated county areas and smaller towns. 

The decade of downtown was not an invitation to recreate Austin’s 6th street. The real cultural and economic improvements like the Museum Reach, the Briscoe, Yanaguana Gardens, the convention center and San Pedro Creek are not threatened by enforcement of the long-existing noise ordinance

When laws and codes are managed and enforced in a balanced way, they assure the success of businesses and a quality of life for residents. The work of the Noise Ordinance Task Force is not shutting down the nightlife of San Antonio. The pilot program is a way to fairly enforce a noise ordinance that relies on sound level readings. A clear and effective noise ordinance preserves the beauty of the nightlife of San Antonio by providing businesses and residents with a balanced approach that makes dense and vibrant city life possible.

Steve Versteeg

Steve Versteeg is a member of the Noise Ordinance Task Force.