By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Sunday, January 3, 2010

In 2009,

Belmont

residents asked city officials to find ways to curb the impact of restaurants in that neighborhood’s commercial corridor just south of downtown

Charlottesville

. One of

City Council’s

first actions in 2010 will be to consider two proposals intended to provide some relief.





Belmont contains one of two NCC districts in Charlottesville.


Sections of Hinton Avenue and Carlton Avenue are zoned “Neighborhood Commercial Corridor” (NCC), which has allowed property owners to open a number of restaurants over the past decade. As of now, there are six dining establishments with a seventh planned to open next year. Some of those restaurants offer live music.

“A lot of time there are loud bands that are brought in,” said Jesse Fiske, president of the

Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association

. “It can go late into the evening and keep people awake.”

Residents have also grown concerned about parking, as restaurant patrons compete with them for spaces on side streets. The tension between commercial and residential interests was on display last spring when the owner of 814 Hinton Avenue

sought an extension of the NCC zoning

to his property in order to open another restaurant.

While the Planning Commission recommended denial of the rezoning,

Council voted to approve the restaurant

as long as steps would be taken to address neighborhood concerns about parking and noise.

“[Council] asked us to meet with neighborhood and look at issues and see what things they might want to happen,” said Jim Tolbert, director of the City’s department of neighborhood development services. “[The neighborhood] was concerned primarily about noise and the proliferation of restaurants with music and crowds that were out of control, and traffic.”

On Monday night, Council will consider two zoning changes that stem from meetings between city staff and neighborhood residents.

First, Council will consider an amendment to the city’s noise ordinance that would lower the permitted volume of noise allowed after 11:00 PM in NCC districts. The threshold of noise permitted to be heard outside an establishment will be lowered from 75 decibels to 55 decibels.

The

website of the American Hearing Research Foundation

lists ‘normal conversation” at 60 decibels. Close exposure to a lawnmower would be at 90 decibels.

One of the restaurants that offers live music is Bel Rio, which is owned by Jim Baldi. He says the ordinance could have disastrous effects for businesses in the corridor if it is passed.“It will make it virtually impossible to have outdoor seating because that noise routinely hits over 60 decibels,” Baldi said in an interview. “Seating goes until 1 in the morning down here.”

Baldi said he’s spent at least $15,000 in equipment to reduce the sound that travels outside of Bel Rio’s walls. He feels the ordinance will place an undue burden on his business.

“Within the existing noise ordinance, we’ve never received a single violation and we’ve never been ticketed,” Jim Baldi said.

Council’s second action will be to consider whether the

Planning Commission

should be directed to study Charlottesville’s zoning code to see if further requirements for parking can be made in NCC districts. This study will also look at whether restaurants that present musical acts should be considered as a separate use from those that only offer food and drink.

Charlottesville’s other NCC district is located around the intersection of Jefferson Park Avenue and Fontaine Avenue.

Tolbert said the goal is not to stop music from being played in the City’s restaurants.

“The idea is that if there’s going to be music in a restaurant, especially in a neighborhood, that it’s appropriate for the neighborhood,” Tolbert said.

Fiske said the reduced noise threshold, if approved by Council, will give residents a tool to help protect their neighborhood’s quality of life.

“Right now, you can call the police and complain, but there aren’t that many cops available to check out every complaint,” Fiske said. “There is nothing the city can do other than wag its fingers.”

Fiske said he is confident that the neighborhood can work with the city on other issues involving the neighborhood.

“We’re hoping for more attractive lighting, better crosswalks, tidier sidewalks,” he said. Many of those infrastructure improvements could emerge if the Planning Commission is directed to study the issue.

However, Baldi said he predicts some of Belmont’s restaurants will close if the noise ordinance amendment is passed.

“A further drop, and a lot of these places aren’t going to be able to continue,” Baldi said. “A lot of the economic development the city has put into Belmont is going to be for naught.”