Solving the problems of noise and nuisance in the city

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As the post earthquake vision of medium density, apartment-based city living becomes realised in Christchurch, it brings together new challenges of commerce, entertainment and community living close together.  Such interests can be complementary but they can also clash.

Recent reports have highlighted the issues from both sides.  On the one hand, bar and night club owners fear being silenced by complaints over noise and disruption in their areas.  And, on the other hand, residents report excessive noise, bad behaviour and other problems on the streets.

All parties are essentially looking to the Council to resolve matters, but Councils wield only fairly blunt tools and enforcement is a problem.

There is a certain amount of heat in the debate but the answer is not in name-calling or threats. One effective solution is in a systematic response that works through the alcohol licensing process.

Alcohol licensing is a unique system in New Zealand that issues licences anew every three years.  One of the core criteria considered through the licensing process is the “amenity and good order” of the area.

The law says that this specifically includes noise levels, nuisance and vandalism and compatibility with surrounding land.

Anyone with an interest can lodge an objection when a licence comes up for renewal. Notifications are made on the Council website. Hearings take place within District Licensing Committees where a wide range of issues can be canvassed.

In a case in Queenstown this year, a new residential house and a new accommodation and entertainment venue were built side by side, almost simultaneously. Through negotiation, a number of conditions relating to noise, venue control, outdoor areas, supply of alcohol and other factors were agreed and applied to the licence.  New licences are issued for a one year term, allowing unresolved matters to be revisited within 12 months.

In Auckland, Princes Wharf was the first entertainment precinct built on the waterfront that incorporated bars and restaurants on the ground floor and luxury apartments above. While it was a great idea, the clash between residents wanting the quiet enjoyment of their property and many different premises attempting to attract and retain customers proved challenging from the start.

The Body Corporate that represents all residential owners at the Wharf has been working to support tailored packages for each premises, depending on use, location, risk and other factors.

Licences now usually attach an enforceable noise management plan, which may set different hours for indoor and outdoor areas and varied noise maxima as well, with lower noise limits after 11pm.  Noise plans are not only about music, but also include ventilation systems, rubbish disposal, deliveries and patron noise (inside and outside the premises).

Noise plans also outline enforcement procedures and responsibilities, and make it clear that a breach of noise levels is a breach of the licence. Knowing that a breach can lead to the loss of a licence to sell alcohol encourages owners to find solutions.

Noise is not the only hazard that residents may face near hospitality outlets.  In another Auckland case, a resident used CCTV to film patron behaviour outside a late-night venue across from his property.  The resulting revelations of vomiting, using the footpath as a toilet and other problems caused the premises to lose its licence. In contested areas, a well-written host management plan can also be attached to a licence, providing shared (and enforceable) expectations of how the premises will operate.

The important lesson is that solutions forged through licensing processes can provide tailored, workable and agreed conditions that allow entertainment venues to reside close to residential sites in relative harmony.

The current debate appears to be at the finger-pointing stage.  Councillors telling people to “engage their brains”, or that their concerns are “trivial”, is not helpful. A problem-solving approach that relies on agreed plans backed by licence conditions is the best way forward.

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About Insight Aotearoa

Most of the blogs published here will either respond to initiatives elsewhere or will be ‘newsmaking’. Some will also be reflective in more general terms. The blogs will be topical and interesting. I like to inject some humour into my blogs.

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