New ordinance restricts noise levels at outdoor restaurants

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 27, 2021

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MADISON HEIGHTS — The food service industry continues to struggle with labor shortages, supply chain problems, and patrons who are wary to visit during the pandemic.

To try and entice customers, more restaurants are offering outdoor seating and live music — and the city of Madison Heights is trying to accommodate them.

Previously, restaurants that don’t serve alcohol or feature entertainment could receive a permit for outdoor seating after a site plan approval, while special approval was required for outdoor seating at any restaurant that serves alcohol or has entertainment.

The latter was subject to conditions such as no external speakers, and a minimum 8-foot wall and 40-foot setback between the outdoor seating area and any abutting homes.

However, the city continued to receive feedback from restaurants that the pandemic has taken a toll on their business, and that they needed more flexibility with outdoor seating and music options. So last fall, Planning Commission members began revising the ordinance.

Now a new version of the ordinance has been approved, one that allows outdoor seating and outdoor entertainment with certain noise restrictions. The City Council passed it, 6-0, on Oct. 11. Councilman Robert Corbett was absent.

For properties that abut residential properties, the ordinance only allows live music and the use of external speakers during normal business hours. Sound levels must not exceed 25 decibels at the property line — the equivalent of rustling levels.

Meanwhile, for properties that do not abut residential districts, the sound level can max out at 65 decibels between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., and at 50 decibels between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.  

“As more people are going out to restaurants, we want (restaurants) to be able to accommodate those who would like to enjoy their dining experience outside,” said Roslyn Grafstein, the mayor of Madison Heights, in an email. “At the same time, restaurants and patrons will need to be cognizant of their neighbors.”

The adoption of the new policy follows last month’s Restaurant Week, which promoted eateries around town with special promotions in store and on social media.

“Some people are still not comfortable being inside, so expanding patio options works well,” Grafstein said. “This ordinance allows our restaurants to take advantage of outdoor seating while being respectful of their neighbors and our noise ordinances.”

Melissa Marsh, the city manager of Madison Heights, said the goal is to help restaurants thrive by offering attractive options to patrons, while still preserving quality of life for residents by regulating noise levels and protecting privacy.

The city has tried to help restaurants in other ways, too. Previously, the City Council approved the issuance of temporary waivers for regulations such as outdoor seating from June 2020 through March 2021. City staff also organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe that matched grants to provide relief programs to restaurants.

In addition, the city assisted restaurants and other small businesses with applying for and receiving economic support from Oakland County — support that included personal protection equipment kits, propane tanks and outdoor heaters, and direct reimbursement.

“One of the things that has been a positive of the pandemic is the ability to think outside the box and change the rules to fit the new reality,” Marsh said in an email. “Customers, many of whom are residents, need to feel safe — and restaurant owners are looking to provide ambiance and enjoyment in a safe environment. The ability to sit outside and enjoy the ambiance of low-key entertainment is the key to success — both for restaurants, and attraction to our community.”

Madison Heights City Councilman Mark Bliss, who is also the Planning Commission liaison, said that one of his top priorities has been helping businesses grow.

“I’m proud that we, on the Planning Commission, were able to come up with this common sense ordinance revision that does just that,” Bliss said in an email. “Giving our restaurants the flexibility that they need to thrive in Madison Heights is important to me — not just so we can attract new restaurants, but also so that we can make sure existing restaurants are as profitable as possible. I believe that allowing outdoor patio seating, without much red tape at City Hall, will make it easier for our restaurants to create those popular dining settings for our residents.

“Also, as the founder of the Arts Board, I’m thrilled that this ordinance also makes it automatic for restaurants that don’t serve liquor to have outdoor speakers and live music, so long as it isn’t heard at a residential property line,” he said. “It’s a simple thing to enforce, and takes away all ambiguity about what a violation is, while helping our ice cream shops, coffee shops, and diners provide entertainment to patrons without any headaches related to permits, rules and regulations. Overall, this is a huge win for our restaurants, and all of our residents who like to eat local.”