By Sean Tubbs


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Charlottesville City Council has taken the first step toward amending the city’s zoning code to allow live amplified music as a by-right use in most of the city’s commercial districts.

The city’s current rules require a special-use permit for any restaurant that wants to offer live music, but the council directed staff in January to study whether that regulation should be changed.

“We got into this issue because after we made changes to the noise ordinance last summer, our staff started noticing the number of places that were advertising music,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services.

Initially, many members of the music community thought the effort was an attempt by the city to regulate free expression. They banded together on Facebook through a group called Charlottesville’s Concerned Music Lovers.

However, the city reached out to the group and held a series of meetings with restaurant owners and musicians to get their input on rewriting the ordinance.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of changes in March that would allow restaurants in most commercial and mixed-use zoning districts to offer music without needing to pay $1,500 just to apply for a special-use permit.

“The net result of this is that all but two or three of the current establishments that we know about that are playing music will become by-right and the things that would regulate their activities are the noise ordinance, the occupancy limits that are on them and the ABC laws,” Tolbert said.

However, restaurants hoping to offer music in the Central City, B-2, and B-3 zoning districts will require a provisional-use permit. That permit is less expensive and can be revoked if the restaurant is not in compliance.

Any restaurant in the city’s South Street district would continue to need a special-use permit because it is mostly surrounded by homes. That permit also requires a public hearing before the Planning Commission and the City Council, whereas a provisional-use permit would not.

There will be no change in the city’s Belmont commercial corridor. The council removed music as an allowed use there last summer in response to complaints from neighborhood residents about the now-closed Bel Rio restaurant.

Local musician and promoter Jacob Wolf thanked the city for working with the music community.

“Those of us in the music community started out with a very pessimistic opinion about our chances about getting some kind of change that reflected what we wanted,” Wolf said.

“But after a very productive and constructive and democratic series of meetings we really have arrived at something that is about 90 percent of what we were looking to have happened,” Wolf added.

Wolf also encouraged the city to rethink its stance against allowing live music in the Belmont neighborhood commercial corridor.

“I understand that there are potential problems but I think this is where the provisional-use permit would have a purpose,” Wolf said.

Mayor Dave Norris said the music community’s mobilization on the issue was a testament to open government.

“I think it’s an excellent example of what citizens can do when they get involved and sink their teeth into an issue and actually make positive change happen,” Norris said.

The council will hold a second reading of the ordinance at its meeting April 18.

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