Some Legislators Want to Drown Out Local Austin Officials by Cranking Up the Volume at Bars

Update 12:59 p.m., May 4: A vote in the House on HB 3813 was postponed from Tuesday, May 4, to Tuesday, June 1, after the Lege session ends, effectively killing its chances of passing as a stand-alone bill.

When most Texans look at downtown Austin at night, even during the waning days of a pandemic, they see a collection of images that have defined the city in the popular imagination for decades. Young revelers who’ve had a beer or six meander from bar to bar; food trucks and walk-up eateries serve late-night snacks; the neon signs of clubs glow brightly. But some look at downtown Austin and see something else: home—and they’d very much like to get a good night’s sleep. 

These two forces in the city have been in conflict for years. They’re mediated by noise ordinances, which are the very definition of a local issue. Historically, Austin—like every other city in Texas—has managed this issue through an elected city council that determines how loud businesses are allowed to be, and when. Bars on East Sixth Street and in the Warehouse District have been allowed for years to blast music into the wee hours; as of 2018, so can establishments in the Red River Cultural District. Establishments in other parts of the city typically have to start quieting down between 10:30 p.m. and midnight, depending on the day of the week, but can obtain permits allowing exceptions. 

This compromise apparently doesn’t satisfy state House representative Cody Harris, a Republican from Palestine, a three-hour drive northeast of Austin. In early March, he introduced HB 3813, a bill that would strip the city council’s ability to regulate noise coming from bars and allow establishments across Austin to play music until 2 a.m. every night, and as loud as 85 decibels. (That’s roughly equivalent to what you’d hear standing fifteen yards from a freight locomotive.) Harris’s bill seeks to regulate noise in all Texas cities that have a population of at least 750,000 and are primarily located within a county with less than 1.5 million residents. But it’s no coincidence that Austin is the only city that qualifies.

The bill is the newest frontier in the GOP-controlled Legislature’s ongoing battle with cities, and especially Austin, that have elected Democrats as their leaders. Several local ordinances passed in Austin have come under fire in recent sessions. In 2015 the Lege proposed a bill to overrule the bans on plastic grocery bags in Austin, Brownsville, Laredo, and a handful of other municipalities (ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court struck down all such ordinances across the state). In 2017 lawmakers overrode a city ballot initiative requiring fingerprint background checks on drivers for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. That same year, Greg Abbott pushed for and signed a bill  during a summertime special session of the Lege that took aim at cities’ ability to protect heritage trees located on private property from removal. The oft-repeated message of state leaders and lawmakers has been that the liberals in cities, and Austin in particular, need to get in line with the values of the rest of Texas. 

When introducing the bill, Harris said, “Austin is the only city in the state with this noise ordinance in their entertainment district.” The statement is technically true—other cities of course don’t have the exact ordinances Austin has—but Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, all of which Harris mentioned specifically, have regulations on how loud the music can be in different parts of the city, and when. The reference to the entertainment district is similarly misleading—as written, the bill seeks to restrict noise ordinances anywhere in Austin, not just where nightlife is centered. 

Notably, HB 3813 wouldn’t bring Austin’s noise ordinances in lockstep with other Texas cities. In Harris’s hometown of Palestine, for example, it’s illegal for any person or property owner without a permit to play amplified music at a decibel level that can be heard by someone a mere thirty feet away. An amendment introduced by Celia Israel, the only state representative from Travis County on the committee where the bill was filed, sought to give Harris some skin in the game by extending the reach of HB 3813 to the city he represents. It failed during a committee meeting. 

If Harris’s bill is good policy for Austin, why isn’t it good policy for Palestine—not to mention New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, and Houston, all of which have had local disputes around noise amplification in recent years that haven’t resulted in the state’s stepping in to overrule city government? And if the answer is that Austin’s circumstances are unique among Texas cities, why wouldn’t the decision about how to regulate how loud and how late bars are able to crank their music be best made by the officials in city government who are closest to the issue? 

Answers are hard to come by because the supporters of HB 3813 are, ironically, fairly quiet. Harris declined to respond to multiple requests for an interview. The bill’s coauthor, Nacogdoches Republican Travis Clardy, similarly declined to talk. During a committee hearing on the legislation in March, Harris described the current regulations in Austin as the city putting its “boot on the neck” of local businesses. Clardy invoked the same specter of an overreaching Austin government. “Our compelling state interest is to not see Texans get messed around by their government,” he said, “whether it be the federal government, the state government, or, in this instance, it was a local government.” 

Two Austin bar owners who support the bill, Brett Vance and Robert Drummond, would agree to interviews only via email. Drummond, who owns West Sixth Street’s Green Light Social, sees the issue as one in which the city plays favorites. “If you’re on the wrong side of the block on Fifth or Sixth Street, then you don’t get to play until two a.m.,” he wrote in an email, referring to the boundaries of the city’s designated entertainment districts. “It’s an unfair system.” Drummond told me he believed the law would undergo “fine tuning” so that it would only affect downtown, though he didn’t say what made him believe such changes would be made. 

Vance, whose HandleBar is just outside the Sixth Street entertainment district, was the lone venue owner to testify in favor of the bill at the hearing in March. In an emailed statement, he wrote that he represented “more than 45 small businesses” that supported the bill, but when I asked him if he could refer me to other supporters, the only name he gave was Drummond’s. (A list of registered supporters at the March hearing included fifteen names other than Vance’s, though most were not business owners. None were contributors to Harris’s or Clardy’s 2020 campaigns.) 

Israel told me that the bill’s backers hired lobbying firm HillCo Partners to promote the legislation, but she didn’t know who paid them, and neither Vance nor Drummond responded to an email asking if they had worked with the group. When I asked a representative of a communications firm working with Vance who had hired the lobbying firm, she replied, “HillCo Partners was retained on this initiative,” without specifying by whom. After publication, the representative told Texas Monthly that Bear Hug Hospitality, LLC, Vance’s company, had retained HillCo Partners.

By contrast, those in Austin who oppose the bill have been loud in doing so. Mayor Steve Adler held a press conference on April 5 outside ACL Live—an indoor venue with impeccable soundproofing—to rally opponents of the bill and decry “outside interference” from the Legislature. He concluded the event by playing AC/DC’s “Back in Black” at 85 decibels, to demonstrate just how loud that actually is. City councilwoman Kathie Tovo, who represents much of downtown, told me that HB 3813 is an “egregious” piece of legislation coming from state lawmakers. “Anyone operating at any level of government is supposed to listen to the variety of perspectives in the room and come up with a balanced solution,” she said. Austin already registers thousands of noise complaints a year, and Tovo noted that she regularly hears from constituents who’d like to see the city enact stricter regulations. If the bill passes and Austinites don’t like it, they’ll have to hope that voters in Palestine and Nacogdoches care about noise in the Capital City and there are electoral repercussions for the bill’s main backers.

Even some local businesses that would gain extra hours of amplification because of the less restrictive noise ordinance oppose it. Rebecca Reynolds, of the Music Venue Alliance of Austin, a coalition of live music establishments, said the legislation would set back years of goodwill built during negotiations over noise ordinances. “We actually asked that all references to music venues be removed from the bill language,” she said. “The solution proposed in the bill doesn’t reflect that hard work we put in to build trust with our neighbors.” Bob Woody, the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance chairman and a bar owner who sued the city over its noise policies on East Sixth Street in the nineties—and who has long maintained that the current noise ordinance is unfair to some of his group members’ establishments—says the bill imposes state overreach on an issue best solved locally. “I think we go a lot further working our way out in every individual neighborhood,” he told me. 

The bill’s future is uncertain at the moment. As the Lege hurtles toward the end of the session, on May 31, a full House vote on the bill has been postponed twice and is now set for Tuesday. Even if the legislation passes, however, there’s not a companion bill for senators to vote on. 

Israel said that even if the bill doesn’t pass, it might end up serving as a warning to the Austin City Council to figure out a way to make the business owners who support it happy. “Sometimes, when you get a robust hearing, get some media attention, and get the city’s attention, perhaps that’s mission accomplished,” Israel said. In other words, if the city council feels chastened by the threat of future oversight from the Lege, it might renegotiate Austin’s ordinances. If that comes to pass, the folks who paid to lobby for the bill will have gotten their money’s worth.

Texas Monthly