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Bemidji City Council: Outdoor music discussion to continue

BEMIDJI – The City Council will continue discussion on outdoor music coming from the Blue Ox Bar and Grill that has drawn complaints from area residents.  

The council voted during a work session Tuesday night to refer the issue to the Public Affairs Committee for a meeting possibly in February. That decision came after lengthy discussion on how to regulate music on the bar’s patio during the summer months.

Michelle Soltis, owner of the Blue Ox, brought the issue to the council after she received many noise ordinance tickets over the summer during outdoor concerts. She said they tried to come up with some solutions, like starting some shows earlier and even moving some inside.

“I need that revenue to support me through the winter months, where we see expenses go up and sales go down,” Soltis said of the concerts on the patio.

Soltis hoped the council would make the current ordinance less subjective by instituting a decibel threshold for violations.

“It would remove the subjectivity,” police Chief Mike Mastin said of measuring sound levels. “Because even among my officers there’s a difference in opinion of what is loud and what’s not.”

But city council members and staff brought up several potential issues with that idea. Ward 1 Councilor Kevin Waldhausen said that how sound travels affects how high the decibel levels are in different parts of the city. City attorney Al Felix pointed out potential practical issues with a decibel-based system, like how to regulate other noise like cars and barking dogs.

 “It does put a lot of discretion in the hands of law enforcement,” Felix said of the current ordinance, adding that residents could still be disturbed by music even when the decibel level is below what the city would set. “You still have to go back to people making decisions about what’s reasonable under the given circumstances.”

 Felix said other methods like permits and limiting hours could be better options. City staff did not present a formal recommendation on how to deal with the issue.  

Soltis said the bar has had outdoor music for three seasons, but it has only become a problem this year. She said that could possibly be because they erected a tent this summer, but she was reluctant to take it down because they have booked it for weddings.

According to a map provided by Mastin, the bar has generated complaints as far north as Anne Street Northwest as well as on the east side of Lake Bemidji.

Mastin said the amount of complaints at the bar is partially due to the time the music is playing, as there is no background noise late at night. More noise complaints usually come in after midnight.

Ward 5 Councilor Greg Negard floated the idea of cutting off music at midnight, which Soltis said could potentially interfere with her dinner crowd because they would have to move the music up earlier.

“You’re going to have to be part of the solution,” Negard said to Soltis. “And in everything there’s going to be a little give and take.”

Soltis said she understood the concerns of residents and that she didn’t want the bar to be a nuisance.

Ward 4 Councilor Rita Albrecht said it’s important to try and find a balance between businesses and residents in the area, a sentiment that Soltis seemed to agree with.

“I’m really passionate about getting it resolved,” she said.   

Nonprofit contributions

The council also voted to continue the moratorium on donations to nonprofits while continuing contributions that the city already makes.

The city voted in June 2011 to set aside 5 percent of liquor store funds from then until Jan. 1, 2013, to give to nonprofits through an application process.

That money will still be set aside at this point, city manager John Chattin said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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