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State College Seeks Local Control for Bar-Noise Enforcement

on April 19, 2011 6:13 AM

With a 5-2 vote, State College Borough Council agreed Monday to ask the state Liquor Control Board for complete local control over loud-music violations at borough restaurants and bars.

The move, sought by the State College Tavern Association, would give borough police the exclusive ability to monitor liquor-licensed establishments' amplified-music noise and to cite them if the noise becomes too unwieldy outside.

Right now, both the borough police and the state Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement can issue citations on that front. While the BLCE officers often take a pro-active approach, citing establishments on the basis of bureau-initiated enforcement patrols and observations, borough police are usually more reactive, State College police Chief Tom King said.

Normally, he said, borough police cite establishments for loud music only if someone first complains. Both the state officers and local police use some similar methods to determine if a liquor-licensed business is in violation -- gauging, for instance, how far beyond a entrance its music may be audible.

But a number of local establishment operators have said the borough-police approach is more fair and equitable, generally taking into account the surrounding conditions and community standards before an officer issues a citation. King said borough officers consider an incident's time of day, the day of week, surrounding ambient noise and other elements as they consider whether to write a citation.

He said borough police have fielded seven noise complaints from liquor-licensed establishments in the past 27 months. In the same period, BLCE officers wrote 19 noise-related citations against State College establishments, all due to loud music.

"It really restricts some of the open-air" offerings that establishments can provide, King has said of the state enforcement practices. Those practices can reduce restaurants' ability to let music spill out -- reasonably -- onto the sidewalks in the summer months, restaurant operators have said.

The total number of loud-noise violations found in State College during the past 27 months -- at all locations, commercial and residential -- reached about 1,800, borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. He and King endorsed the change in enforcement practices for bars and restaurants, saying it would not add unduly to the borough police's workload. The Downtown Improvement District supported the effort, as well.

"We're not saying we're being treated unfairly. We just prefer the (borough approach)," Tavern proprietor Pat Daugherty said. "It can't be any more honest than that. I think (the borough approach) is a good ordinance for the borough, as well."

Technically, the borough noise ordinance sets specific decibel levels as standards. But the borough has not used that specific ordinance for many years, King said, given the extreme difficulty of measuring a noise source's decibels under many circumstances.

Instead, borough police generally cite people and businesses for disorderly conduct when they're making too much noise. State disorderly conduct guidelines outline general standards for unlawful noisemaking -- such as how far the noise carries. But King said the borough plans to revisit, revise and refine its own noise ordinance soon, to make it more practical.

Borough Council member Tom Daubert, who voted against the enforcement change Monday, said he objects to citing an establishment for disorderly conduct when it has only generated too much noise. His colleague Silvi Lawrence, who also voted against the enforcement change, said she thinks it's premature for the council to tackle the bar-noise issue again.

And "I think the (Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement) is doing an excellent job," she said.

Early in 2010, the council voted down a similar proposal to shift all bar-noise enforcement to the local level.

But council member Don Hahn, whose position on the matter changed since then, said the BLCE now seems more accepting of the proposed change. In early 2010, he said, he thought it was important that the borough not offend the BLCE.

Also in the months since, Hahn went on, "I think we have had a lot of positive cooperation from the Tavern Association."

Other council members said they see the enforcement change as a way to encourage more flexibility for outdoor seating downtown. Council member Peter Morris said he thinks the measure will lead to more outdoor diningthere  and elsewhere in the borough.

"If that doesn't happen, I will be disappointed and may even vote to repeal" the change, Morris said.

At a council session last week, state police Sgt. Wayne Bush, of BLCE, said bar- and restaurant-noise violations in State College have dropped off significantly since 2009. He said the BLCE would not pick a side as the borough seeks sole control over enforcement. He also said that state officers use judgment and accepted standards -- including noise-distance measurements and traffic-noise considerations -- when they gauge a possible violation.

State Liquor Control Board rules allow municipalities to seek local-only enforcement of noise standards at licensed establishments. Once the petition approved by the council reaches Harrisburg, the PLCB will have 60 days to decide whether it will reject the request, state rules show. It could reject or modify the request if it believes the change would diminish health, welfare, peace or morals in the borough.

If the PLCB approves the change, it will not alter the BLCE's other enforcement practices in State College, including its emphases on underage drinking and visibly intoxicated people, officials said.

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