Hills & Gardens: Confronting Increase in Noise
By Trudy Whitman
Part of the price Brownstone Brooklyn pays for its stardom is noise. We’ve become a destination neighborhood, meaning that people want to chow down at our restaurants and drink up at our watering holes. All for the better most of the time, but as the weather gets warmer, restaurant patrons spill over to sidewalAk cafes and backyards. Complaints roll in to 311 and to community boards. Residents demand the right to peace and quiet in their own homes. They ask for clarification on the rules and regs. Sometimes there is no clarity. Murkiness prevails.
For the sixth consecutive year, Community Board 6 has hosted a neighborhood meeting on the laws governing restaurant operation and alcohol service. This year the meeting was held on April 12 at 250 Baltic Street. CB 6’s Assistant District Manager, Leroy Branch, who moderated the meeting, advised the group the intent was not to complain about individual establishments but to better understand the rights of both the private citizen and the restaurant or bar proprietor.
To underscore how knotty these issues can be, representatives from five city and state agencies, as well as officials from two police precincts, were invited to explain the sometimes overlapping roles played by each body in licensing and regulating commercial establishments. The city departments represented at the meeting were Buildings, Sanitation, Environmental Protection, and Consumer Affairs. Bernard Johnson, an investigator for the enforcement bureau of the State Liquor Authority also took part. And Leroy Branch let it be known that the number of problems stemming from the proliferation of bars and restaurants had resulted in the creation of an additional committee called Permits and Licenses at CB 6. (Community boards function only as advisory bodies.)
The Department of Consumer Affairs is responsible for processing applications and licensing. They do this through an additional department — the Department of Health. Whereas licensing for sidewalk cafes and cabarets (clubs where dancing is permitted) is pretty stringent, what can be done and when in a backyard restaurant garden is much less well-defined. There can be no open flames or music outside and there must be two means of egress, but there are “no blanket rules for backyards,” said Benjamin Colombo from the Buildings Department. Sidewalk cafes can operate Sundays through Thursdays until midnight and Fridays and Saturdays until 1 a.m. There are no such rules for backyard tables.
Glenn Kelly, a Carroll Gardens activist, complained that backyards have “no hours and no rules.” “It is more invasive in a residential area,” he remarked, “to have activity in backyards than on sidewalks.” No one disputed Kelly’s assertion; there just isn’t a solution under current law.
I asked Leroy Branch if any legislative actions have been put forward. He replied that Assemblywoman Joan Millman had proposed a bill but that it had been tabled.
Millman has been working on the issue since 2010, her chief of staff Anne Strahle told me during a telephone interview. The problem is that there is no State Senate sponsor because restaurant gardens do not concern many other legislators. In fact, it’s almost uniquely a Brooklyn problem, since the majority of outdoor eating spaces in Manhattan are of the sidewalk-cafe or rooftop-garden variety. Millman’s bill would stipulate that outdoor dining and drinking establishments be 500 feet away from residences, that they close at 11 p.m., and that patrons may be served by wait staff only.
It behooves restaurants to monitor patron behavior, Strahle said, because complaints have been increasing, and the State Liquor Authority does consider neighborhood feedback when deciding whether or not to renew individual licenses, a process that occurs every two years.
Regarding another community complaint, Jason Chen, who represented the Department of Sanitation at the meeting, shed some light on an issue I have faced crossing Court Street early in the morning. Sometimes bubbly substances coursing down the street — liquids that I assumed were used to wash sidewalks — are actually much more hazardous. Used cooking oils and other kitchen detritus are not permitted to be dumped into sewers or onto streets. In addition to being very slippery, they are considered noxious and are subject to heavy fines. Call 311 if you observe employees improperly disposing fluids. These substances, along with restaurants’ other trash, are supposed to be picked up by private sanitation companies.
Are you being driven insane every weekend by loud bar music emanating from a business next-door? Even if these disturbances occur regularly at 2 a.m. on Friday nights, you can ask for visits from the Department of Environmental Protection in your home at the offending hour, said Phil Licima, an air and noise enforcement supervisor with the Department of Environmental Protection. DEP agents come with equipment to measure decibel levels. DEP also monitors noise from air conditioners and vents and after-hours construction, as well as air quality.
When a bar or restaurant is the nexus of numerous complaints, the local police precinct and concerned agencies may schedule what’s called a March Operation. Several inspectors and a police officer show up at the business at a specified time; one enters the establishment to explain what is happening, and then they all carry out their inspections simultaneously. It’s a rather dramatic spectacle that usually results in the rectification of violations in a short period of time.
I asked Leroy Branch if a March Operation ever exposed conditions so grave that the place was shut down immediately.
“Not in our community board,” he responded. “Never.”
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