Outdated zoning and contradicting noise regulations may put a crimp in Bearsville Center’s outdoor music plans and the frustrated Woodstock Planning Board says its hands are tied.
Complex owner Lizzie Vann told planners that she was seeking a special use permit for Memorial Day weekend, July 4th, a date in August and Labor Day weekend to have outdoor music. “This is different to what we’ve done during the period of the pandemic, because at that point, there was no need to apply for a permit. We were, some weekends, holding things outside. But we’ve decided to restrict it to those five weekends. Mostly it’s just a one-day, actually one-afternoon, rather than multiple-day use,” Vann said at the May 19 Planning Board meeting. “We’re very aware of our neighbors concerns and all the work that has been done about noise and music and Woodstock.”
Planners ultimately voted to approve her Special Use permit on the condition that she obtain permits from the town for each event. The responsibility then falls on the town building or police department to deal with any complaints regarding noise.
Vann said they have installed a temporary outdoor stage that will be linked electronically to decibel meters that can be monitored via the internet, where everyone including the musicians, town and law enforcement officials can view the levels. “We’re also going to rely on the musicians themselves, which I know may be a little optimistic, but they will have screens in front of them that go from green to red if they go over the decibel level that we set for them,” Vann said. “Also our sound tech will be aware of it and he can control it from his moveable iPad that he walks around with.”
In the backyard area next to the theater, Vann said the plan is to install private-listening “pods” containing speakers that are at a level low enough only the occupants can hear the sound.
“We believe that we can produce sound on the stage that falls away to between 70 and 80 decibels. So we’re going to try for that make sure that that works, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll come up with another solution,” Vann said. “We do not want to be a nuisance to our neighbors, but we also do need to be commercially viable.”
All outdoor music will be acoustic, so there will be no drums or electric bass, she said.
But outdoor amplified music is not permitted in the Neighborhood Commercial zone and allowing such a use may be outside the Planning Board’s authority. This restriction is in addition to the noise ordinance that covers the entire town, that prohibits an excessive or unreasonable level of noise.
Can’t get around zoning
“The problem is that there are two code provisions that are as I read them mandatory upon us and we have to grapple with them,” Planning Board co-chair Stuart Lipkind said. “There are sound limits set up in the code for various zoning districts in the town and for the NC, neighborhood commercial district where the Bearsville Center is located, the code says that any noise from property in that location cannot exceed 64 decibels from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. or after 9 p.m., it’s 60 decibels.”
Colony Woodstock, which is also seeking permission for outdoor music, is in a different zone, but its decibel limits are the same.
“My understanding is that is pretty much normal conversation level, and if you’re looking for a commercially viable music arrangement, you’re going to have to exceed those levels,” Lipkind added. “As a Planning Board, I don’t know how we can grant permission for something that exceeds the standards prescribed to us by the code.” He suggested a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals may be the proper solution.
The other issue that concerned Lipkind is the general standard for a special use permit, which states all activities involving amplified sound shall take place fully within a structure or structures. “So how do we have authority to allow outdoor amplified sound? Doesn’t the code say quite clear that has to be inside?”
Planning Board member Judith Kerman agreed the language is absolute. “I think it’s one of those things where somebody wasn’t thinking about who Woodstock is when they wrote the code. But it’s there. And we can’t do it unilaterally,” she said.
Vann pointed out the impracticality of the decibel limits in the code. “I’m using my decibel meter to listen to you while you’re there. And you’re speaking between 70 and 84 decibels, which is higher than 64 decibels,” Vann said.
Lipkind noted regardless of whether the music is amplified, it still must be within the decibel limits, a hurdle that puts Vann in a quandary.
“What do you advise us to do, then? I don’t understand,” Vann said.
“Because what you’re saying is that if somebody is speaking in their house, at 70 decibels, and we are at 68 decibels, because that’s more than 64 decibels, we shouldn’t be allowed to make music, even if it’s acoustic music,” she added. “It just seems to be crazy, that it doesn’t seem to be allowing for there to be anything outside. A truck driving along 212 is going to be 80 or 90 decibels.”
Lipkind agreed, but didn’t believe there was any flexibility. “This is not my preference, but I don’t know how we can ignore it. And also one of our concerns is that we don’t want to discriminate against one business owner as opposed to another. We’re trying to get to an even-handed approach that respects everybody.”
Kerman cited an exception in the noise ordinance that references “noise from individually sponsored events where a permit for public assembly or other permission has been obtained from the town.” She conceded there is some contradiction because the regulations governing event permits seem to only address vending.
Lipkind countered that the event permit provision only waives the noise ordinance restrictions. It doesn’t address the zoning code. “It does sound like the next step for you may be in the meantime, while this gets arbitrated, to pursue a variance with the Zoning Board of Appeals,” Planning Board member Conor Wenk told Vann. “I can’t tell you whether or not that would be successful, but that would probably be the next step in in terms of operating outside of any of the confines we’re speaking about right now.”
More guidance needed
Vann again asked for help. “We really, really need some guidance on this, guys. We have gone through two and a half years of a renovation. We’ve gone through two years of a pandemic. We really need to be viable. We need to have events outside because that’s what the public wants,” Vann said.
“What we’re up against, Liz, is there are lawyers quoting us the same codes that we’re just bringing up, representing clients, which are citizens in this town, which are complaining about the noise,” Planning Board Chair Peter Cross said.
“How many complaints have there been about noise in Bearsville?” Vann asked. “I think three people are basically putting us out of business. And that means that the town is not taking care of one of its occupants, which is us, who employ a lot of people…There will probably be about 50 people employed here by the end of this year, and we pay a huge amount of tax. So we are not having any kind of guidance at this point, let alone support from the town because I think three people are making complaints on a regular basis.”
Cross suggested the Planning Board approve the outdoor stage and other structures on a trial basis and if Bearsville Center is cited for exceeding sound levels, it is a town building department issue.
Planning Board member John LaValle agreed. “The difficulty here is that this has not been fixed for the last 40 years. This needs to be addressed at the Town Board level,” he said. “Permit these organizations to go forward…It is the only viable course we have. Because at this point, the law doesn’t work.”
With the exception of Lipkind, who said he was opposed to approving an application that is in direct violation of zoning, the Planning Board all voted to approve the special use permit with the condition Bearsville Center obtain an event permit for the days when music is to be performed.
Colony Woodstock, another music club in town, recently proposed a plan for its outdoor beer garden with specialized directional speakers. The Planning Board opted to approve the space and will take up the sound issue at another time. Similar to the Bearsville Center, amplified music may require a town-issued event permit on a case-by-case basis.