Navigating Portland's entertainment rules

City Council
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 16, 2009


HOMELESS TOO? Naked Shakespeare hopes to get its venue back

No live music after 12:15? No outdoor entertainment after mid-September?

It's crazy talk, but it's what many Portland music scenesters thought was at stake last week, as the Portland City Council, Portland Downtown District, and various downtown bars and clubs began grappling with the question of with noise regulation in the Old Port and the Arts District. There's some amount of confusion among onlookers — establishment owners and music fans alike — about what exactly is on the table.

Basically, a conflict exists is between those who crave downtown quiet (hotels, people who live in the immediate area), and those who come downtown to enjoy not-quiet pursuits: concerts, dancing, carousing. At the very least, city officials and business owners want to fix the existing noise-level ordinance, which, in its current incarnation, is unenforceable. The 55-decibel limit, for example, is about as loud as a normal conversation.

"I've observed in the past few years that the noise ordinance is not working in so far as the applicable decibel limits are so unreasonably low so as to be indistinguishable from ambient noise and therefore difficult to enforce," says city councilor and Public Safety Committee member Kevin Donoghue. "I asked to review the . . . decibel limits. . . . My thought is to have a decibel limit which is high enough to allow establishments to do business legally without being subject to harassment by complaint, yet low enough that residents and hotels can be assured that noise limits will be enforced with regularity."

It was this decibel-tweaking that was to be discussed at last week's Public Safety Committee meeting. However, the day of the meeting, a document started making the Facebook/local blog rounds; it talked of creating "entertainment days" (Fridays and Saturdays), non-entertainment days" (Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays), and "shoulder days" (Thursdays and Sundays), all with different decibel-level limits and time constraints. Among other ludicrous things, it prohibited outdoor entertainment on non-entertainment or shoulder days, and barred "live entertainment" (including DJs) after 12:15 am even on entertainment days.

There was a fair amount of confusion about where this feather-ruffler had originated; several city councilors did not even know about it until after Tuesday's meeting. But it was outrageous enough to ensure that several bar- and club-owners showed up at the committee hearing to object.

"I would like to see some harmony between the bars and neighbors," Slainte proprietor Ian Farnsworth told the Phoenix in an e-mail, echoing the concerns of many of his colleagues. "If in fact there is too much noise coming from the bars, why doesn't the city offer to help the bars? All of the buildings in the Old Port and Portland in general are old, existing structures. Why doesn't the city offer assistance to the bars to soundproof their establishments? Not only would it reduce the noise, it would also make the bars more energy efficient and improve how they look facing the street. From what I believe the federal 'stimulus package' should include money for such projects. Another thing, the bars have existed for a long time in this town, long before most residents of the apt/condos in the Old Port. Some responsibility needs to go to the neighbors as well. If you build a house next to a pig farm, don't call the town every day complaining that it smells like shit."

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