ESSEX — A mild tension is budding in Essex as residents are fiercely split regarding possible changes in town to minimize outdoor noise.
If, when and how the town would pursue such measures is "completely up in the air," Selectman Andrew Spinney said.
The conversation about outdoor noise levels has been going on in town for years, said Spinney. Businesses and homes sit side-by-side in town, as there are no zones for residential and commercial buildings. This has led to the ire of some residents, especially those who live near establishments that play outdoor music.
One such business that has received a number of complaints is Riversbend Restaurant on Dodge Street. The business routinely hosts outdoor events during the spring and summertime such as wedding receptions and car shows. Owners Curt and Lindsay Bergeron say they follow all laws while hosting these events and the police have never been called to squash any of them. Despite this, the Bergerons said they feel the town has been uniquely biased against them.
"(The Bergerons) are looking to be able to have some certainty for their applications on entertainment licenses, as there has been resistance from the community every time," said Edward Prisby, a lawyer with Kajko, Weisman & Colasanti, LLP providing general council to Riversbend. "They routinely have restrictions on their entertainment licenses that others do not."
Selectmen are within their rights to impose limits on what a business can and can't do while holding an entertainment license. Still, Prisby notes that other Main Street restaurants don't receive the same number of restrictions as Riversbend.
On top of that, Prisby said the Bergerons have been in a constant battle about noise with some of their neighbors.
"One of the neighbors went to (Riversbend's) bank to try and get their private financial records," he said, "It's a weird obsession some have with the restaurant. Clearly there are some that feel they shouldn't be subjected to any noise at all, but that's not what the law states."
Selectmen openly discussed the possibility of updating entertainment licencse policies to include noise level policies at its meeting on Dec. 16. Once word got out, the people of Essex chose their sides.
Maureen Flatley, a local, formed Essex Residents for Responsible Business Development, a group of local business owners and concerned residents, to withdraw any plans to amend the town's entertainment license policies. The group published an online petition which, as of Wednesday afternoon, has 295 signatures.
"We are writing to request that the Essex Board of Selectman withdraw an assortment of draft entertainment licensing proposals generated by a self-appointed group of town residents who seek to dramatically limit opportunities for entertainment, promotion and revenue generation for the town of Essex," the petition reads. "We further call upon the Select Board to consider more reasonable licensing requirements that extend hours for live music, whether indoors or outdoors, and ensure that the entire town, not simply self selected 'abutters' have input both on policy decisions and any subsequent licensing requests."
Things came to a head at Monday's selectmen's meeting during a public comment period. Many residents of Water Street, which is around a mile from Riversbend but less by water, spoke out against the use of outdoor music. Kevin Oyer, who lives near the end of the street, said since there's only open water between his house and Riversbend, he feels like he's "at the party" inside his home when outdoor music is played at events. He said the thumping bass from the speakers can feel like "Chinese water torture" at times.
Many who spoke against the increase of outdoor noise said they have been called "anti-business" on Facebook. This is not the case, they claim, as many contribute to the downtown shops and restaurants (one woman who spoke up claimed she eats out in Essex four times a week, at most). Their concern is solely the use of music and other outdoor noise.
Other speakers saw things differently. One person said the town is seeing a hit in revenue after multiple antique shops closed their doors over the past year. It would be unwise, he argued, if the town enacted any measures that would further restrict commercial businesses in town at a time like this.
Local business owners also spoke out about how Riversbend's events indirectly help their businesses. Jayne Ginn of Cedar Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast on John Wise Avenue said wedding parties in town bring in new lodgers for the business. Patrick Shea, owner and head chef at C.K. Pearl on Main Street, located across the Essex River from Riversbend, argued that wedding events bring in "around 100 people to town for the weekend." In addition, he explained how outdoor music has helped his business personally. When live musicians play on his restaurant's patio, customers fan outside and free up the dining tables indoors.
At the end of the meeting, Spinney reiterated there are no plans to put anything into writing as of yet, and selectmen will continue to research the issue.
"We received a lot of emails from concerned residents both pro and con on the subject of entertainment licenses," Spinney told the Times. "We are digesting all those emails. The BoS is working with residents and business owners to come up with an amicable solution that will hopefully have everyone satisfied."
Also at Monday's selectmen meeting, Great Marsh Brewing Company, 99 Main St., was awarded an indoor entertainment license. The brewery will now be able to host live music with light amplification Monday through Thursday, from 7 to 11 p.m.
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or firstname.lastname@example.org.