David Dodson is a first-generation homeowner in northeast San Antonio. Since he purchased his house back in March, a bar that offers live music has opened across the street. 

Dodson is torn. He is all for free enterprise, but at the same time, the venue’s “extreme sound amplification system” vibrates his windows and doors. The sounds are loud enough to disrupt Dodson’s time at home, but not loud enough to violate the city’s current noise ordinance.

“We don’t wanna shut businesses down,” says Dodson. “What can we do to both protect businesses and homeowners?”

He’s also not alone. According to Amin Tohmaz, the deputy director at Development Services, over the past 18 months, the San Antonio Police Department has received more than 53,000 calls concerning noise.

Answers may come from a new task force that is currently reviewing and revising the existing noise ordinance — but criticisms over the focus of the task force are also brewing.

‘Less than harmonious’

In March, former District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño and current Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) asked Development Services to create the task force after noting that while entertainment businesses near residential neighborhoods provide “positive cultural impacts,” they have also led to “a less-than-harmonious relationship between neighborhoods like King William, Oak Park — Northwood, and Tobin Hill” and these establishments.

Tuesday evening, members of the community were invited to the Cliff Morton Development and Business Services Center to review what the task force has suggested thus far. 

One of the biggest potential changes to the ordinance is the hours during which commercial, nonresidential businesses may play live or amplified music outdoors. Now, amplified music can play until 11 p.m.; the task force suggests dropping that to 10 p.m. on weekends and 9 p.m. on weeknights.

Residential area hours would stay almost the same; the task force suggests leaving the current end time of 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday, but moving up by an hour the time noise levels can rise, from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Further, the task force suggests reducing the volume in some places. While residential areas would potentially remain at the existing 63 decibels during the day and 56 decibels at night, the task force is currently recommending that nonresidential areas, which include small businesses, bars, and other venues be reduced to 70 decibels during the day and 63 decibels at night. These non-residential areas are often adjacent to residential ones, spurring complaints.

To put the numbers into perspective, 63 decibels is comparable to the sound of an average dishwasher or a washing machine, while 70 decibels is closer to the noise a vacuum cleaner makes. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, sounds at 80 to 85 decibels are considered harmful to humans.

The exception to the proposed changes would be the specially defined entertainment areas that include Six Flags, Sea World, and Morgan’s Wonderland which are currently allowed to produce noise at up to 85 dB.

The task force also hopes to launch a 90-day pilot program, dedicating five or six police officers exclusively to noise complaint calls. Because of the sheer volume of calls, response times average 30 to 60 minutes. The new team would significantly reduce residents’ waiting time, the task force hopes.

Some businesses that offer live or amplified music have already expressed their concerns with ways in which these suggested changes could affect their business. 

David Uhler, president of Beethoven Maennerchor, a German singing club and outdoor beer garden that has been a fixture in King William since 1920, said the business hadn’t even recovered from the pandemic yet. The proposed new noise restrictions, he said in a statement, would have a severe impact not just on the Beethoven, but on many outdoor venues across the city.

“We have always tried to be a good neighbor,” said Uhler. “Instead of harsher ordinance restrictions, we feel that tighter enforcement of existing regulations would be the best way to bridge the divide between residents’ concerns and business operations.”

Widen the scope

Even some members of the task force have criticized its approach. Jody Bailey Newman — who along with her husband Steve Newman owns the Friendly Spot in King William, itself the target of noise complaints almost a decade ago — says she believes the task force is too narrowly focused on entertainment businesses, which make up a very small percentage of all noise complaints. Many more, she said, concern multifamily households, construction, and manufacturing. 

“There are specific business owners whose businesses are being used as examples over and over again with this current task force,” said Bailey Newman. “That is a problem, right?”

Bailey Newman said she’d like to see the task force diversify to include more council district representatives and to expand its purview to tackle all the other sources of noise complaints. She also suggested mediation between specific businesses and affected neighbors.

“The solution lies within the business owner and the residents coming together and maybe the district office bringing in mediation,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re basing citywide policy on a few targeted businesses.”

The proposed changes remain just that — proposed. The noise ordinance task force will hold another community meeting Aug. 31 to continue receiving feedback from the community. Development services will take its final proposals to the City Council for a vote likely in October. 

Polina is a Shiner Editorial Intern for the San Antonio Report.