Sunday, July 21, 2024

Brewery owner: Noise citation at charity concert sets unhealthy precedent for Wilmington music scene

Wrightsville Beach Brewery owner Jud Watkins was given a noise violation after throwing a fundraising concert last weekend. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Wrightsville Beach Brewery owner Jud Watkins was given a noise violation after throwing a fundraising concert last weekend. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

While Wilmington works on amendments to its noise ordinance, one business owner takes issue with a noise violation he received while throwing a fundraising concert.

WILMINGTON — In the middle of last weekend’s “One Perfect Luau” charity concert for children with autism at Wrightsville Beach Brewery, a Wilmington Police Department (WPD) officer stopped by and handed out a $250 noise citation.

The brewery’s owner, Jud Waktins, said a resident of the neighboring Seagate community had been calling in noise complaints to the WPD for more than two years; after about a dozen visits, he said this was the first time he received a ticket.

“I believe his words when he issued the ticket were, ‘If we listen carefully we can hear the music,’” Watkins said of the WPD officer who issued the citation.

RELATED: Turn that music down! City of Wilmington revisiting noise ordinances, possible changes in the works

Watkins said the officer was shown a reading of the noise level, measured by a phone application approximately 50 feet from the stage as they stood on the property line, which displayed a reading of approximately 58 decibels (dB).

“The example it gave on the apps says, ‘This noise level is equal to an office,'” Watkins said.

Watkins said the officer issued the ticket around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.

An unclear ordinance and officers with no meters

The city’s noise ordinance defines a noise disturbance as “any unreasonably loud and raucous sound or noise” which can cause harm or injury or “disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivity.”

It states that a noise level of 75 dB is allowed by a commercial establishment between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m, but later outlines restrictions for commercial entertainment: noise cannot be “plainly audible” 66 feet from its source nor in a structure that is “not the source of the noise.”

“In no case, however, shall the decibel level of such activity exceed the levels allowed pursuant to this article when measured at a point one hundred (100) feet away from the source of the sound and beyond the boundary line of the premises from which the noise emanates,” the ordinance states.

Watkins said the lack of clarity in the ordinance makes it difficult for officers to issue noise citations in a consistent manner. More concerning to him, however, is that an officer has never used a decibel meter when assessing noise level at the brewery.

“[G]enerally a decibel meter is not required when issuing a noise citation,” Deputy City Attorney Meredith Everhart said on Wednesday. “It is simply one tool that can be used.”

After an agenda briefing in early April, Everhart said changes and clarifications to the ordinance could be made and presented city councilmembers with various options to deal with enforcement issues — like how the city has only one meter that costs $10,000.

Noise restrictions as outlined in a presentation by city attorney Meredith Everhart in April. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Wilmington)
Noise restrictions as outlined in a presentation by city attorney Meredith Everhart in April. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Wilmington)

“I ask [the officers], ‘Do you have decibel meters?’ And they say they don’t have them in every car,” Watkins said. “If there’s a complaint they’re obligated to come out, but after, it’s unclear … I think it’s a joke that we have three decibel readers here and the city hides behind an excuse that they don’t have them but they still write a ticket. We’re making more of an effort than they are, and we’re the ones getting a ticket.” 

He also said when the brewery first began hosting outdoor music events, he was advised by the city to pull permits. More than a year ago, he said a WPD officer told him that he no longer needed permits and that “we were within our rights to play music at a certain noise level.”

“From that point on we’d walk around and get two different decibel readings on our property each time we have music, then give feedback to the band,” Watkins said. “We corroborate our meter device with the apps on the phones.”

Watkins said he will not pay the citation until he presents his case to a judge or city official. Everhart said there is no appeals process for noise citations, but the noise ordinance is currently being amended and will include such a process similar to appeals for other types of civil citations.

A spokesperson for the WPD did not respond to questions sent Wednesday in time for publication; this article will be updated with the department’s response.

An ‘unhealthy precedent’

Watkins argued the noise violation he received could set an “unhealthy precedent” for the outdoor music scene in a city with a strong local music community.

“It means one person can shut down live music anywhere in town at any given point of time simply because they complain enough,” Watkins said. 

Hourglass Studios owner Trent Harrison agreed. He said he was controlling the soundboard when the officer issued the citation on Sunday afternoon.

“It really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary,” Harrison said. “I’m surprised they got hit with a ticket … Putting all kinds of restrictions on outdoor live music is, in my opinion, just hurting the local music scene and could have effects on the economy, on Wilmington, on the desire for people to want to bring their music here. I know there has to be some sort of code and rules — at the same time, it shouldn’t be so hard that it discourages these types of events.”

Video: Many of the bands at Sunday’s concert recorded songs for the “One Perfect Summer” album last year to benefit Surfers Healing. The album was produced by Trent Harrison at Hourglass Studios.

Harrison has a degree in sound engineering and 10 years of experience running his music studio, which has included controlling live sound every concert season. He says there is a simple and accurate formula to calculate sound levels at various distances: for every doubling of distance from the location of measurement, there is a 6 dB reduction in the sound level.

If the complaining neighbor is, say, 200 feet from the brewery’s property line — where Sunday’s measurement took place — a 58 dB recording taken 50 feet from the stage would equal 46 dB at the house in question, according to the formula. If other buildings are in the way, Harrison said the level would be even lower.

Although the city ordinance lays out specific requirements for the recording of sound levels, Harrison said the applications found on phones are reliable — with perhaps a three to four dB margin of error.

“You don’t need a $1,000 meter to measure the sound,” Harrison said, let alone $10,000 in the case of the city.

Watkins also sees the citation as an encroachment on his rights as a business owner. According to the citation document, each subsequent citation will cost the brewery $500 — an amount that he said would make outdoor music performances too expensive in the future.

“We moved into this space knowing we had commercial zoning and knowing we had the right to do certain things, one of which is to have outdoor music,” Watkins said. “It’s a big part of what we do and I planned a business around that.”


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com

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