olony Woodstock owners Neil and Alexia Howard will have to wait until January 6 to learn the fate of their popular beer garden amid complaints of the sound reaching far distances through the hills and valleys of town.
The Colony opened the beer garden in June 2020, enabled by an emergency order enacted by Supervisor Bill McKenna allowing establishments to construct outdoor seating areas as a way for patrons to convene safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The order allowed businesses to bypass the required site plan review and Planning Board approvals. Now that the order has expired, the Howards hope to make the space permanent and are seeking approval.
The Planning Board received roughly 70 emails about the Colony case, with an overwhelming majority, around 55, being in favor and some 15 against.
As he opened the public hearing on the Colony site plan modification, Planning Board Chair Peter Cross read an email sent from Ulster County Legislature Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner in support of the beer garden. “I believe this application is in keeping with the town’s aesthetic and an appropriate accommodation, especially considering current events,” Heppner wrote. “COVID has presented many difficulties and challenges highlighting the need for communities and governments to be flexible and open to change. One of the most significant developments has been calls by medical professionals to reduce the risk by shifting service outdoors…Colony, a mainstay of our town and valued community partner, certainly rose to the challenge. Alexia and Neil provided a space that offers socially distant entertainment opportunities where residents could safely enjoy each other’s company. It is not an exaggeration to say the Colony presented a lifeline to many over the past two years for residents, musicians and workers and their families alike.”
Before he let the Howards make their presentation, Cross reminded those attending the meeting that sound and noise is an enforcement issue and not the purview of the Planning Board. “This case is a site plan review, and a site plan review is just that. It is parking, lighting, access in and out, highways, anything on the site. The Planning Board cannot dictate how a business runs its business,” Cross said. “As far as the sound goes, this town has a sound ordinance. And whether it’s the Colony or the Station, or Pearl Moon, or the pizza place or anybody else, any issues to deal with sound have to be taken…basically you go to the dispatcher…you tell the dispatcher what the situation is…And normally they will tell you to please go to wherever the sound is coming from and try to sort it out rather than send the police.”
Beer garden opened as a COVID-safe gathering place
Alexia Howard then explained how the beer garden came into existence and what is being done to mitigate sound issues.
“When Neil and I bought the Colony in 2015, which was seven years after we moved here, we hoped that not only could we renovate the indoor space to life, but the outdoor area could become a place where local musicians in the community could gather outdoors on summer days, and evenings under the stars, to enjoy meals and music and perhaps even shake a leg or two from time to time,” she said. “And so when the pandemic hit in 2020, we were set for our biggest week of indoor shows ever…yet we chose to cancel them even before the mandatory closures hit in order to protect the community.”
When the lockdown eased in June 2020, Colony was able to pivot to the outdoor area and give people some sense of normalcy, she said. “And thankfully, we’re very proud that we were able to keep our staff employed and provide a safe space for local musicians to play to an audience during a very unusual, challenging time.”
The Howards are planning to add lights to the garden entrance to make it safer to enter and exit after dark and they plan to make other improvements.
“However, as people have rightly mentioned, the elephant in the room here is clearly not about the site plan itself, but it’s about the question of the noise levels from the outside music. And I would hope that we can propose a series of mitigation efforts that mean that we can continue to operate next season to everyone’s satisfaction,” Alexia Howard said.
She went on to explain the confluence of events that led to complaints this summer. A progressive rock band from out of town played the weekend before Memorial Day and prompted complaints. They worked to remove louder bands from the schedule and booked quiet singer-songwriters later in the evening. From the beginning, all music stopped by 10 p.m.
“So from mid-June to late July, we actually received pretty positive feedback about the way that we reined in the noise from some people that we reached out to who had previously complained,” Howard said. “But the fly in the ointment this summer was the resurgence of the pandemic once the Delta variant took off.”
The Howards had installed a medical-grade aerosolized hydrogen peroxide air purification system at a cost of $25,000, but they still feared an outbreak from the louder bands that were booked indoors.
Indoor bands moved outdoors, causing complaints
On the other hand, they felt they couldn’t break contracts, so they moved the indoor shows outdoors. “So we were kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, which led us to sound problems later in the summer. So over the next few weeks, we did our best to juggle all these competing needs,” she said. “And admittedly, there were a few larger out-of-town bands that we moved outside, including Tuba Skinny at the very end of July. There was an all-day reggae festival in early August, and then there was Tommy Tutone and Hop Along in mid-September, which was when we got another round of complaints.”
It was then that the Colony canceled some remaining shows and moved others back indoors.
“So the main lesson we learned here is that there is a certain type of musical act that is appropriate for outside and others that are simply not. Loud drums are a definite no-no, while more gentle bands, solo singer songwriters and softer duos and trios don’t seem to pose a problem or violate the noise ordinances,” Howard said. “The plan for next season is a combination of physical noise mitigation efforts, and also booking more appropriate music.”
The Colony is working with sound engineer Pete Caigan and will move the stage to the far end of the garden so it isn’t facing Ohayo Mountain. It will instead face the Colony building, which will act as a baffle. Insulation material will surround the stage on three sides and sound baffles will extend diagonally out from each corner of the stage, Howard explained.
“And hopefully these measures will all serve to contain the sound within the garden itself, rather than broadcasting and up and down these hills. And then in terms of the musical guests, we intend to invite firstly, obviously, avoiding bands with loud percussive drums or excessively loud basslines,” she said.
“Secondly, ensuring that our sound engineers are booking bands and individual musicians who truly understand and will respect the noise ordinance and the constraints. And thirdly, not to book bands to play outside at the same time as we have ticketed shows inside.”
But some don’t believe the town should allow the music to continue at the beer garden.
Colony music carries far and disturbs peace, some say
“I think the idea of having amplified outdoor music is totally against the laws and the regulations and the character of this town,” said Steve Grenadir, who has complained that he can hear the music all the way from his Cannon Circle home. “Basically, you built an electrified stage, speakers 20 feet in the air, facing out towards the valley. And what you’ve created is an outdoor amplified concert venue, which I think is really ridiculous.”
Perhaps the most convincing of those against continuing the beer garden music series was Claire Keith, widow of bluegrass banjoist Bill Keith.
“Music is essential to my life. I cannot live without it. And this is precisely why I’m here tonight to oppose with anguish and the most extreme concern, the application in its present form that we are currently discussing,” said Keith, who can hear the Colony music from her Glasco Turnpike home. “What happens is that once you amplify sound outdoor on the high stage with baffles, a friend of ours who is sound engineer agrees, that we have lost control of where the sound will go.”
Like others in the last two years, she said, “I have lost my home’s outdoor life entirely to Colony’s noise pollution in the spring, the summer into the late fall during the most important vital hours of daytime living. “I can no longer sit in peace. I cannot think. I cannot garden. I cannot host friends or family without a constant unwanted, ill-defined mix of electronic sounds that is colonizing my ears.”
Keith said the current way of calling in a noise complaint is not a solution. “Calling dispatch, Peter (Cross), is not a solution when something is chronic, because it’s like swatting flies. By the time the police can come it is in-between acts or the wind has shifted and they cannot stay.”
Keith stressed her opposition has nothing to do with the Colony itself or their desire to have an outdoor space, which she supports.
“What it has to do with is any business’ unprecedented petition to gain for itself something that is truly astonishing, which is a permanent right to broadcast indiscriminately, its amplified commercial product into the public and the private soundscape of the community.”
Outdoor music is part of Woodstock
Broadview Road resident Urana Kinlen said she has heard the music and can empathize with people who say it violates their space, but she has been offended by other sounds. “I’ve also been woken up at seven in the morning from lawn mowers that are decibels or higher than some of the music in the mountains,” she said.
Ohayo Mountain Road resident Michael Mulvey said the Colony owners are trying to make things work the best they can. “It seems like the owners of the Colony are extremely sensitive to how they could maybe work with this, and it will be up to the town to give us clear guidelines and how to proceed forward,” he said. Mulvey pointed out the Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2018 stresses strengthening the arts and how it links to economic sustainability. He noted the importance of clarifying the noise ordinance so that establishments have some direction.
“The people at the Station, they said every time Ted Orr played at the Station, the police were there, and that was indoors, so we talked about clarifying it with an ordinance called the “Ted Orrdinance” and trying to get the town to actually come down on how many decibels where, and that would then give businesses some guidance, so that it’s not arbitrary and up to the officer who shows up and how loud the person who’s complaining is, and which band happens to be on the stage…”
During the meeting, which was held via videoconference, a thunderstorm slammed through the area with high winds and knocked out power in many parts of town, including Planning Board Chair Cross’ home. Without the chairman present, Vice Chair Stuart Lipkind said the application needs further discussion and moved to table it until the January 6 meeting. The other members agreed.