2013-09-05 / Front Page

City Seeks Balance on Noise

By Tom Shevlin

When the Pier Restaurant recently reopened after an extended legal dispute over the management of the popular waterfront restaurant, the owners set about charting a new course, with new staff, new menu items, and a slightly new look. But as recent weeks have shown, some of the issues that have followed the restaurant for years remain the same.

Located at the end of a wharf in the heart of the Lower Thames Street corridor, The Pier occupies a sensitive piece of real estate with IYRS to its south and a densely developed residential marina complex to its north. The property is part of the downtown waterfront district, where businesses and private residences are closely intermixed. And running through the heart of at least a portion of the property is what some waterfront advocates have for years claimed to be a public right of way.

Last week, all of these issues collided as the new management sought permission for an outdoor entertainment license.

Neighbors, led by philanthropist and waterfront advocate Elizabeth Meyer, objected to the request, saying that if past history is any indication, then the city should have real cause for concern before granting the license.

Turner Scott, an attorney for Lee’s Wharf Marina, noted that his clients are as much taxpayers as any other property owner in town.

According to Scott, the marina, comprised of 45 slips – which for the most part are owner-occupied – has had long running problems with management at The Pier over noise coming from the outdoor bar area. And, if the council’s recent actions are any indication, Scott argued, the application should be denied.

“I was here for an entertainment license a few months ago for the Barking Crab,” he said, noting that councilors denied that license, citing concerns by nearby condominium owners. “This is the same thing.”

Unlike other waterfront destinations, Scott said the council is well within their rights to restrict the operations of The Pier.

Operations such as 41 North, Newport Harbor Hotel, and Waites Wharf all own the marinas that abut their respective operations. The Pier, on the other hand, doesn’t.

“It’s a waterfront district that promotes access to the water,” Scott said. “This restaurant doesn’t need access to the water, but the marina does.”

Elizabeth Meyer, who owns an adjacent parking lot and over a dozen of the 45 slips at Lee’s Wharf Marina, noted that there are also financial considerations to take into account.

According to city records, with a total assessed value of $8.6 million, Lee’s Wharf Marina dwarfs in terms of taxable property that of the adjacent Pier, which is assessed at $2.5 million. Meyer’s parking lot is assessed at another $1.1 million.

“I urge the city to bear in mind the extreme importance to Newport of maintaining its tax base,” she said. “If this application is granted, it will devalue the dockominium slips at Lee’s Wharf Marina Association. This in turn will negatively impact Newport’s tax base. I urge city council to consider the relative value of these two businesses to the city when considering whether or not to grant this license.”

Tax implications aside, Meyer added that there’s also a broader discussion to be had – that of public access to the water.

Arguing that at least a portion of The Pier’s outdoor patio has been deemed a right of way by the state Coastal Resources Management Council, Meyer cautioned the city council that their decision could set a bad precedent.

In considering the application, she said, “City council has to determine whether they’re going to grant an entertainment license in a public right of way.”

That’s an interpretation that City Solicitor Joe Nicholson, however, said exceeded the bounds of the council as a licensing authority.

Rather than debate rights of way, Nicholson advised councilors to only focus on the license itself.

And so, attention turned toward previous noise complaints. Here, at least, neighbors seemed to have a stronger case to make.

According to the city, between 2006 and 2010, there were over a dozen noise complaints recorded by the city associated with The Pier, including two documented violations, one in 2006 and another in 2007.

Eugene Friedrich, a dockominium owner and past president of the Lee’s Wharf Marina Association, testified that he’s been troubled by The Pier’s operations for years.

“I think that it’s very important that you take a very serious look at the application,” he told council members. “You have 45 slips, many of which are used in a residential way by families with children.”

The council appeared to do just that.

According to City Clerk Kathy Silvia, the city’s standard for entertainment license is to permit amplified music Sunday through Thursday until 11 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays until 12 a.m. However, there are exceptions.

When restaurants stop serving food, Scott argued they’re more akin to nightclubs and should be treated accordingly. The Pier, which has an active late night crowd, falls into that category, he said.

“I was shocked to hear that we actually have nightclubs in Newport,” Second Ward Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin said sardonically last week. Pointing to the Waites Wharf complex, where neighbors have also expressed concerns over the noise coming from Dockside and @ The Deck in the past, councilors in recent years have sought to balance the needs of the business owners with the rights of property owners to the quiet enjoyment of their homes.

“We’ve been apprised tonight that there’s the potential of disturbance for this neighborhood,” McLaughlin said.

And so, in the interest of keeping the peace, McLaughlin suggested that the council apply the same standard at Waites Wharf to The Pier.

The majority of his fellow councilors eagerly lent their support, restricting amplified music at The Pier to 65 decibels and limiting its hours to 10 p.m. during the week and 11 p.m. on weekends.

“It’s a good compromise,” Councilwoman Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said after the council had voted to grant the restricted license. “I just don’t think people want to revert back to the craziness that went on at one time. “

And without risking a fundamental redesign of its licensing system, finding compromises such as the one applied at The Pier may be the council’s best bet toward making the city – as they have stated time and again – the most welcoming and livable community in the Northeast.

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