Above: Jared Chelo (left) and Joe Gelineau shake hands after the meeting.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The Town Council Monday night postponed action on amending the noise ordinance (continuing it to March 25) but only after two hours of comments and discussion and guarantees from both waterfront restaurant owners and residents that they would meet to try to come to some agreement short of council action.
So many people showed up to the meeting at Town Hall (capacity 130) that it had to be moved to Swift Community Center, where about 165 people filled the seats.
Many of those in attendance were there in support of the waterfront restaurants. The owners had not attended the council meeting March 4, when the noise ordinance was first taken up.
At that meeting, several waterfront residents told the council that not only were noise levels too loud and allowed too late into the night – the three Water Street restaurants offer live outdoor music most nights during the summer – but they also complained about the behavior of patrons after the bars closed and of parking problems and valet drivers speeding up and down harbor streets.
“I want these problems solved before this summer,” said Council Vice President Mike Donegan. A meeting between restaurant owners and residents now “may present an opportunity … to reach agreement.”
Early on at the meeting, however, there was more contention than agreement.
After Council President Mark Schwager explained the ordinance process (three readings, including a public hearing, before any vote takes place), he responded to rumors that popped up on social media after the March 4 meeting.
“There was never any intent by revising the ordinance to discontinue outdoor entertainment on the waterfront,” he said.
Then, acknowledging the large turnout, he allowed public comment on the issue, noting that technically public comment on ordinances takes place only during the public hearing at second reading.
First up was Steve Lombardi of the EG Chamber of Commerce, who spoke on behalf of the waterfront restaurants.
“Their season is very short,” he said. “But during that short period of time, East Greenwich is a destination and that fact that it’s a destination carries through the rest of the year. The waterfront restaurants are a big part of that.”
Councilman Donegan asked Lombardi if he made any distinction between East Greenwich as a restaurant destination or a nightclub destination.
“I will say this,” Lombardi said, “that some of our restaurateurs have said that they’re so happy that people have an opportunity to go down to the waterfront to dance or listen to music after they dine at their restaurants. That’s part of that destination. I’m not making a judgment about the hours. I’m saying they like it the way it is.”
Lawyer Jeff Gladstone, representing Blu on the Water and Finn’s, the two establishments that feature louder bands (Nautika offers live music but not big bands), said the waterfront used to be a “difficult” place but was now a “destination that we should all be proud of.”
He said changing the ordinance would risk tax money from restaurants (the town gets 1 percent of restaurant taxes back from the state, a total of $690,000 last year).
“We’re talking about the viability of this town,” he said.
He also questioned the council’s understanding of decibel levels and asked how the waterfront could be carved out for special treatment.
The waterfront has been its own district in the zoning code for decades.
Several other residents spoke in defense of the waterfront establishments, including Devin Fineout, who lives on Prospect Street on the Hill (about a half mile away from the waterfront).
“I moved here about three years ago and the reason I moved here was for the hustle and bustle and the activity. If it changes, then I’m going to complain,” she said to loud applause.
Steve Smith, of Steve Smith and the Nakeds, a regular band on the waterfront, called for compromise.
“The most important thing about tonight is, I think, the residents and the owners, the council is trying to get you together, to talk to each other. If you’re just going to complain and not do something about it, it’s not worth the time and effort here,” Smith said.
Waterfront residents also commented, describing, as several had on March 4, a throbbing bass, public urination and loud late night conversations outside bedroom windows.
Among those who spoke in favor of a stricter ordinance was lawyer Stephen Litwin, representing Joe and Lorraine Gelineau of King Street. Litwin described several attempts since 2017 to reach out to Blu owners about noise problems, with no result. The Gelineaus have since filed suit against Blu and the town over the issue.
Blu owner/manager Jared Chelo said he was committed to working with residents.
“It was working so well for so long,” he said. “Let’s get those talks resumed.”
He was referring to a waterfront group of business owners, residents and the police that disbanded a few years ago but that had met over the years to address problems.
Schwager said the council wanted to restart such a panel but on the advice of Town Solicitor Andy Teitz’s reading of the Town Charter, that would need to done via ordinance and so would take at least several weeks to enact.
The old panel had not been official and that’s why it didn’t last, Teitz argued. An official panel would ensure continuity.
Since that would take time and the summer season is approaching, Schwager asked acting Town Manager Joe Duarte and Police Chief Steven Brown to meet with residents and owners now to see if some issues can be resolved without official town actions.
“A sound ordinance is a very small piece of what we heard tonight,” said Donegan. “There’s a lot government can do. We can condition licenses, hours of operation, liquor licenses, live entertainment…. We can control a lot of things I just don’t want to do. I want you to work all that out. But it takes a will to do it from everyone involved.”
Councilwoman Renu Englehart agreed.
Addressing the owners and the residents, she said, “There is no reason why you can’t – before we have an ad hoc committee in place – address some of these issues.”
She added, “Residents should be able to enjoy their summer in that area just as much as patrons of those establishments.”
After the discussion, as Jared Chelo was leaving, Joe Gelineau came up to introduce himself. The two shook hands.
“I hope we can work this out,” said Gelineau.
The Town Council will take up the noise ordinance again at its meeting March 25.
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