2013-11-14 / Front Page

Noise Request Withdrawn

By Tom Shevlin

The owners of the Newport Yachting Center on Tuesday quietly withdrew a request that would have given them an exception to the city’s noise ordinance.

For the better part of a week, the Newport Harbor Corp. had been lobbying online and in person in favor of a request to exempt the popular concert venue from future noise violations. The action was intended, proponents said, not to disturb nearby residents, but rather to maintain the status quo.

City Council members were due to take up the proposal at their Wednesday, Nov. 13 meeting.

However, soon after the request was made public, it set off a flurry of discussions around town, with some residents of the downtown core voicing opposition to what they feared was the city’s transformation into a full-fledged party town.

In the online message forum Knowing Newport, one user wrote “Given the years of citizen action spent in the 1990s to help curb excessive noise, why should residents simply accept Newport Yachting Center's promise on blind faith? Are there not wireless sound-level devices to deploy around the affected areas so that the city can monitor Newport Yachting Center's sound levels in real time?

According to city ordinance, the maximum allowable decibel level for venues such as the Yachting Center should not exceed 65dBs.

For years now, residents of Historic Hill and nearby condominium complexes have complained about the noise level emanating from Commercial Wharf. But it wasn’t until this past summer that city zoning officials were given the tools to document violations.

According to records on file with City Hall, during the 2013 summer season, Yachting Center officials were cited with three noise violations – each occurring during the popular Sunset Music Series. During each violation, readings observed by zoning officials fell between 77 and 81dBs.

In a letter to friends and supporters, Newport Harbor Corp. CEO Paul O’Reilly said that after receiving feedback from the council, the decision was made to withdraw the request and reach out to the community for input.

“The reality is that we need to take a step back and allow the city to hold public workshops, during which we will have an opportunity to explain the facts of the variance request and our plans for noise abatement,” O’Reilly said. “There is much misinformation circulating right now and it is important that we be able to present the correct information to the residents of Newport.”

Some of that information will likely include the assurance that while the Yachting Center was hoping to secure an exemption from the noise ordinance in the future, it is not interested in turning up the volume.

“In 2013, the Sunset Music Series enjoyed its 16th consecutive year, welcoming world-class artists to the waterfront of Newport including Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Chicago and more: the level of talent had never been better!" he wrote. Should the council grant the request, O’Reilly pledged that he has no intention of increasing decibel levels for future shows. Rather, he said, “the variance will simply allow us to continue to operate at the same noise level that we have been operating at for the past 16 years. We also plan to make a significant investment to implement sound attenuation materials in our concert tent next season that should reduce the level of sound outside the tent.”

By design, all musical events at the Yachting Center begin and end early in the evening – concluding no later than 10 p.m.

And while the noise violations were the first in the 16-year history of the downtown concert series, some feared that should the council grant the request for a variance, other late-night venues would follow suit.

“Should the Newport City Council approve the requested variance, I would expect businesses to quickly form a line seeking similar variances for their own ‘concerts and festivals,’" wrote Knowing Newport moderator Mike Cullen. “Where would the variances end?”

In the run-up to the hearing, council members struggled with that same issue, with several councilors reporting that they had been inundated with emails and phone calls from residents who voiced similar concerns.

Perhaps anticipating the controversy, the Yachting Center earlier this year commissioned an economic impact study in order to gauge the importance of their tented concert venue.

The Center has said that the study, which explored not only the Sunset Music Series, but also the facility’s other concert plays including the Celtic Rock Festival, Reggae Festival, and the Blues & BBQ Festival, determined that over 33,000 people attended last year’s events, generating an estimated $11.3 million in economic activity.

“These are truly significant numbers,” O’Reilly said. “We view the Newport Yachting Center as a convention center for the City of Newport…Events like the Chowder Cook Off, the Celtic Rock Festival, and the Newport International Boat Show are attended and enjoyed by many in this community, and are also important economic drivers for local retail businesses, bed and breakfasts, hotels, and restaurants.”

Indeed, according to the city clerk’s office, the Newport Yachting Center operates under a class J entertainment license, which is generally reserved for convention centers. Over the summer, the facility has become a focal point for visitors and locals alike.

That hasn’t lessened the concerns of those who believe the city needs to be more vigilant in striking a balance between the needs of business with those of residents.

“It's unfortunate to see Newport Yachting Center apply for a blanket exception to Newport noise ordinances to promote their commercial activities over the summer," said Cullen. “In [the] late 1990s, I helped push this city to hire a nationally-renowned noise expert from Rutgers University to make recommendations that would update our noise ordinances. The council later adopted many of those technical recommendations. The city has made solid progress since then in controlling noise. Let's continue to move forward.”

Return to top