The Backyard Bar, Stage and Grill has quickly become an anchor for downtown live music over the last two years, drawing up to 3,000 visitors on weekends.
And it’s not just weekends: You can bet on a big crowd this coming Tuesday night, singing along to “All Star” and “Walkin’ on the Sun” with ’90s hitmaker Smash Mouth.
But this hot spot has also become a flashpoint in Waco’s long-running battle of the decibels, and it’s part of the Waco City Council’s discussion about tightening the city’s noise ordinances.
Several residences along Clay Avenue share the block with the Backyard, 511 S. Eighth St., and some residents over the last year have filed noise complaints with police and even circulated a petition.
“The noise concerned me,” said Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez, who represents the southern side of downtown. “The Backyard was loud and keeping up kids who had to go to school.”
Rodriguez said the Backyard has worked with police and “toned it down” as a result. Owners Brian Brown and Chris Cox address volume levels in contracts with bands and send out employees to gauge decibel levels in the surrounding neighborhood during concerts, though some neighbors remain dissatisfied.
Rodriguez said she foresees more conflicts as downtown evolves into an entertainment hub and edges into the older residential areas.
“We live there,” she said. “Our kids have to go to school the next day. We have seniors who deserve to have a peaceful, quiet neighborhood.”
Police Chief Ryan Holt is proposing amendments to the city noise ordinance that could provide residents with more protection from loud music.
At a council meeting earlier this month, he proposed lowering the limit for nighttime residential noise to 70 decibels. Because of the way sound is measured, that’s effectively half as loud as the current nighttime residential limit of 80 decibels.
Put in other terms, the current residential nighttime standard would be roughly as loud as a lawnmower, while the new one would be about like an upright vacuum cleaner.
Holt’s proposal would leave 85 decibels as the limit for daytime residential areas and for commercial properties both night and day.
Just as important, the proposal would shift the point of measurement from the property line of the noisemaker to the point of the complaint, which could allow residents more leverage over a neighboring business. Fines for violating the ordinance range from $150 for a first offense to $750 for a fourth offense.
Assistant City Attorney Judith Benton said the point is not to penalize music venues, and police would work with business owners to get voluntary compliance.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Benton said.
The ordinance would also clarify and strengthen a provision that allows police to cite noisemakers based on creating a nuisance, even if no decibel level violations are observed. But for those cases to be successful, complainants will have to be ready to testify in municipal court that the noise harms their quality of life, Benton said.
In the council work session Aug. 15, Holt argued for the changes to allow police more ability to resolve noise complaints all over Waco. Complaints that can be regulated by the ordinance include machinery, barking dogs and vehicle engines, as well as amplified music.
Councilman Dillon Meek said most of the noise complaints he gets involve mobile sources — motorcycles or cars with loud speakers or no mufflers.
“Unlike a music venue, that’s pretty hard to enforce,” Meek said.
Still, Holt said police do occasionally cite motorists for being too loud.
Last year, the department had 1,949 noise complaints overall, and it issued 186 warnings and 37 citations.
Noise complaints and enforcement actions have declined since 2012, when there were 2,357 complaints, 387 warnings and 227 citations.
Holt said the revised ordinance won’t solve every problem.
“When you start getting conflicting uses of commercial and residential in the same area, there are going to be times when there’s an uncomfortable situation,” he said. “People may feel it’s too loud, but by ordinance it may not be. … I don’t see this as a panacea.”
Those commercial-residential conflicts aren’t new to downtown: The owners of Austin’s on the Avenue curtailed their outdoor music shows several years ago because of noise ordinance issues and complaints from urban neighbors.
Backyard co-owner Brian Brown said he has tried to respect his residential neighbors to the south by building the stage facing the other direction and putting up barriers to muffle the sound. Also, the business self-imposes a midnight deadline on live music, playing recorded music after that at a lower volume.
“Honestly, we just have one person who complains, and they call during every concert, unless it’s a rock concert,” Brown said.
He said he doesn’t know the complainant personally, but he apparently doesn’t like country music.
One of the neighbors who has complained is Andy Lopez, who lives on Clay Avenue and owns several rental houses up and down the street. Lopez, who is on the Downtown Neighborhood Association board and the Waco Plan Commission, said he doesn’t want to shut down the Backyard but would like to see earlier showtimes.
“Businesses need to condition their customers to the right times,” Lopez said in an interview Thursday afternoon.
He said outdoor live entertainment near residential areas should wrap up by 10:30 or 11 p.m.
He emailed a follow-up message at 12:33 a.m. Friday, noting that he could still hear house music and “people playing games, laughing, howling.”
“Good fun,” he wrote. “But it would be like having a decent-sized party in your neighborhood going on at 12:30 at night. That’s what they don’t understand.”
Brown said nighttime music is the heart blood of the Backyard’s business and downtown’s vibrancy.
“If there wasn’t live music, people probably wouldn’t come out just to hang out,” he said. “Music is an art. Without art, your culture dies.”