Albemarle County Planning Commission
voted Tuesday to get out of the business of patrolling wedding noise at farm wineries. The action would change excessive outdoor amplified music from a zoning violation to a criminal act enforced by the police.
Some neighbors near one local vineyard
the county for better enforcement of noise regulations. The wineries, and some members of the commission, have said they would prefer an objective noise standard establishing specific decibel levels for music.
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Bert Page, who lives next to Keswick Vineyards, has complained to the county about noise from several weddings.
“I was particularly pleased with the outcome,” Page said in an interview. “We have nothing against wine, weddings, or music, and we have no concern over what our neighbors are doing, so long as we don’t have to listen to it.”
“The county is interested in supporting businesses and generating income for the county, I understand that,” Page added. “It’s a noble effort, but there are ways to do that, and ways not to do that.”
The commission’s proposal would maintain what is known as the “audibility standard,” but turn enforcement over to the police. Amplified music could not be “audible” 100 feet away from the wineries’ property line or inside a neighboring dwelling unit.
“The intent of the existing ordinance was well-meant, and none of us foresaw the problems we have since encountered,” Al Schornberg, the owner of Keswick Vineyards, told the commission Tuesday. “When we incorporate well-meaning standards without quantifying them … we leave ourselves open to abuse and misinterpretation.”
“I was disappointed. They went in the wrong direction,” Schornberg said in an interview. “The Planning Commission was supposed to work on finding an objective sound standard for farm wineries, and they didn’t do it.”
The commission’s 4-3 vote came after an impromptu public hearing and debate that lasted for almost an hour. Commissioners Don Franco, Mac Lafferty and Tom Loach voted against the motion, indicating a preference for a measurable standard.
The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution of intent Jan. 5 to have the commission make recommendations to amend the noise ordinance as it relates to farm wineries. While the commission held a
work session on the issue last month
, the item did not appear on Tuesday’s meeting agenda.
Supervisors were briefed on the vote at a separate meeting Wednesday morning. County Attorney Larry Davis told the board that it would have to wait for the commission’s formal recommendation before opting for an alternative approach.
“If I understand [the action], the Planning Commission does not want to deal with the … winery issue as a land use issue, but instead deal with it as a nuisance issue,” Davis said. “You could take that approach, but it’s envisioned … that you would deal with land use issues in the zoning ordinance.”
“I would hope that the Planning Commission would hold a public hearing and bring a zoning text amendment to the Board of Supervisors rather than recommending that you adopt a [police powers] ordinance that’s not under their purview,” Davis added.
Neil Williamson, executive director of the
Free Enterprise Forum
, said in an interview that while the commission’s action was a surprise, it would help resolve the matter more quickly.
“We believe an objective standard is preferable to the audible [standard], but in addition we believe that having the Planning Commission take this to a public hearing is helpful,” Williamson said. “There are businesses and neighbors that deserve resolution to this issue in short order.”
Schornberg says the noise debate is already affecting business at Keswick Vineyards.
“It has had a very negative impact,” Schornberg said. “People are planning their weddings now for the end of 2011 and spring of 2012. We are not even close to being fully booked, and I think it is the cloud of the sound ordinance hanging over us.”
Without an enclosed building for wedding receptions, Schornberg said Keswick Vineyards has relied upon specialized audio equipment that focuses the sound toward the dance floor and contains it with acoustical dampers.
“We are pretty confident we can keep our music so it is not audible [to our neighbors],” Schornberg said.
Page said he is not convinced a specific decibel limit will be enforceable by either the zoning staff or police.
“In my judgment, the push for a decibel standard is to serve one purpose only, to provide additional wiggle room for the winery to violate the noise standards,” Page said. “They know when you go to a decibel standard there are so many variables involved that impact sound level measurement, and in the course of a wedding the noise fluctuates a lot, and it usually ends in a huge crescendo after I go to bed.”
Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning, told the supervisors that public hearings on the matter have tentatively been scheduled for Mar. 1 before the Planning Commission and Mar. 9 before the Board of Supervisors.