Three years after Blu on the Water first filed a lawsuit against the Town of East Greenwich over changes to the noise ordinance approved by the Town Council in late 2019, the council voted 3-2 to approve new changes to the noise ordinance that would effectively settle the suit.
At their April 10 meeting, President Mark Schwager and councilors Caryn Corenthal and Renu Englehart approved the changes, with Vice President Mike Donegan and Councilman Michael Zarrella voting against.
“Negotiations have been arduous, grueling and draining,” said Schwager in introducing the second reading of the ordinance change (changes to a town ordinance require three readings, including a public hearing which took place that night).
Blu filed suit in federal court in February 2020, arguing the new ordinance setting lower decibel limits would make it impossible for them to use their property.
The ordinance changes came about after a number of waterfront residents protested the loud music coming from Blu and Finn’s Harborside during the summer months. In particular, they said the persistent lower bass frequencies were impossible to shut out. The new law lowered the acceptable level by 10 decibels and it included a limit on dbC readings (which measure bass frequencies), something other Rhode Island municipalities do not have.
During negotiations with Blu, the restaurant agreed to build an enclosure, a band shell of sorts, to help focus the noise toward the water. Last summer, the enclosure got a test drive as well as the new as-yet-unapproved decibel rules. Noise complaints were way down.
“I think what we have is a very good compromise here,” said Town Solicitor Andy Teitz at the meeting. “No one is completely happy with it, which of course is the definition of a good settlement.”
All the dates and times listed in the ordinance will stay the same. The big chance is over the dbC monitoring, he said. “That’s the one that goes through walls and glass, that thumping bass. We have a mechanism to incorporate it into the licensing; we removed it from the routine enforcement.”
The idea is that the restaurant owners and the town will discuss dbC levels when the restaurant goes for its license renewal. The venue would have a qualified acoustic expert come up with perimeters and the sound system would be tuned to the level determined by the expert for the season.
Sound amplification is a science, officials said, but a lot of things can affect how sound travels, including the weather (fog, wind, etc.) as well as the type of music being played.
This was a public hearing and King Street resident Joe Gelineau asked how the new policy could be enforced.
“What I heard tonight is that different bands turn it up, turn it down…. How are we going to manage this?” he said, adding, “It’s not going to be an honor season.”
“There has to be a little bit of trust involved and there has to be some communication,” said Town Manager Andy Nota. He said there probably would be nights where the dbC was higher than it had been and a resident might call the police.
“It’s black and white regarding the dbA; [for a complaint], we are at that point going to go into the property and verify the settings on the equipment,” said Nota. “They will get cited or immediately resolve the situation.”
The equipment they have will measure dbC as well. While the ordinance changes would preclude the town addressing dbC at the site on a given night, Nota said officials would be able to enter the facility and work with the owners to lessen the noise.
“I think we’ll be able to manage it as we did last summer,” Nota said.
For councilors Schwager, Corenthal and Englehart, settling the lawsuit by making some changes in the noise ordinance made sense.
“I view this ordinance as a victory for the town,” said Corenthal. “We got Blu to do something that helps [residents]. If things aren’t working, we can revisit the ordinance at some other time. I think this is frankly a huge victory for the town so that’s why I’ll vote to support it.”
Englehart said she was voting yes because she was concerned about the ongoing costs and uncertainty of litigation.
Councilor Donegan said he was voting against the changes to the ordinance because the Town Council had gone through a very public process in revising the ordinance in 2019, including hiring its own expert.
He also argued there wasn’t a lot of money involved if the town were to lose the lawsuit, mainly lawyers’ fees, so he didn’t see going back to court as a problem.
“We want to get it right. We want to balance the needs of businesses and residents,” said Donegan. “I don’t like the idea of having a public process and then in private coming up with a different settlement.”
Zarrella said he was voting no because he thought settling would tie the town’s hands if Blu went back on its word. He added, “I feel strongly that I’m not going to be intimidated by bully tactics…. I don’t think we did anything wrong.”
Presiding over a split vote, Schwager argued he and the other four councilors were ultimately in agreement.
“Although there may be some disagreement in the details about how to address the noise at the waterfront, the council has been united … to address noise complaints,” he said. “If we proceed with litigation and lose, all of our work would be lost.”
The Town Council will hear a third reading of the ordinance at their next meeting, Monday, April 24, after which it could become law.