Local dive bar and live music venue The Wormhole is locked in a noise dispute with the city, highlighting tensions that often exist between residents and businesses in mixed-use neighborhoods.
According to Wormhole proprietor Amy Stafford, a few neighbors have been calling the police for more than a year to complain about noise levels. The complaints became so frequent the city sent a zoning inspector to measure decibel levels coming from the establishment and found her in violation.
"They keep calling," said Stafford of the parties involved. "And they'll call even if we have an acoustic band, so we learned that it's not just metal night. We've not had a band at all, and they still call."
Stafford doesn't deny her bar produces a fair bit of sound, but she's not convinced it's entirely her fault.
Residents and businesses in adjacent properties to The Wormhole have not complained, Stafford said, and the parties who have complained live across the street behind other buildings on 39th Street.
The Wormhole is located near the corner of Bull and 40th streets in a section of town with businesses, houses and steady traffic.
"I'm not saying that they don't hear some noise, but is it actually to the point where it's unbearable or is it just natural city and business noise that you hear living in a business area?" asked Stafford, who took over the abandoned space five years ago.
The Recorder's Court case document lists the parties involved on the most recent complaint as Julie Lieberman, Louis Clausi, Susan Falls and Jessica Kapinos.
"All we're asking for is a little bit of courtesy and consideration," said Clausi, one of the neighbors.
He said the real problem is the bass resonance that is reverberating and rattling their windows. Clausi said the situation escalated after he and Lieberman researched soundproofing options for Stafford but she did not purchase or install it.
Zoning Administrator Geoff Goins confirmed that an inspector had been sent to take readings of the establishment. He said one reading taken across the street in the parking lot of the Save-A-Lot registered high enough to prompt the citation.
"They just want the noise to stop," said Goins. "They don't want to listen to noise at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning; that's their main concern."
Stafford has been in Recorder's Court three times over the last year and was fined $500 in April. She initially was due back in court today for an update on her compliance but has received a continuation.
The city's noise ordinance is twofold: One part mandates that a business establishment like Stafford's cannot be above 50 decibels between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and the other part states that any "noise disturbance" that can be heard across a property line is prohibited.
Stafford said it's the latter part of the code she finds contradictory. She said she had bought a decibel reader and taken steps to address the amount of sound coming from her establishment - from closing the door during shows to scheduling weekday acts earlier - but said those steps are futile if she's not allowed to have any sound at all.
"If we were given parameters for decibel levels, then we could do a soundproofing job," Stafford said, "but if we're told we can't have any sound outside the building at all, then we don't really have anything to go by, measurement-wise."
She said it would take thousands of dollars to soundproof the building, a step she'd be more willing to consider if she thought it would actually resolve the dispute.
"If there can't be any noise outside your property line, then no place could have music anymore, and it's already a hard enough music scene," said Stafford. "(The neighbors) are not giving us the opportunity to work with them. ... They want no sound from us; they want us to be shut down."
Bret Bell, Savannah's public information director, said the city has no intention of revoking The Wormhole's license, emphasizing they are making attempts to work with the bar as they have other nightclubs that ran into similar problems.
"From the neighbors' perspective, it's not the decibel level; it's that they're hearing this loud, thumping bass. It's a tricky issue," said Bell.
"We want to encourage a mixed-use district. Basically, a lot of people moved downtown to be close to these sorts of entertainment spaces, but there's inherent conflict. It's an issue that we continue to work through with music venues to find that happy medium."
"Our main goal is compliance," said Goins, the zoning administrator.
City officials said they had encouraged Stafford to proceed with additional soundproofing measures. Bell cited establishments like World of Beer and Hang Fire Bar that were able to resolve noise disputes with neighbors through sound mitigation.
Stafford said the court fight has taken a toll on her business and she cannot afford soundproofing. She's canceled all musical acts until her next court appearance, causing bar traffic to slow. Most of her business, she said, is generated by having live bands.
Over the years, the space has hosted an array of acts from open-mic comedy nights to local grunge band Broken Glow to big-name indie rockers Band of Horses last October.
No easy resolution
"Whether or not this issue is legit, the outcome can open up doors for anybody wanting to shut down a business," said Stafford. "All they have to do is keep calling the cops anonymously every single night until they shut down."
Stafford is not alone in her frustration. Just two stores down is Graveface Records, which hosts bands about twice a week. Owner Ryan Graveface said he also had a neighbor, different than the Wormhole's, who would repeatedly complain about noise.
"Last April, someone called the cops on us 12 times in one day," Graveface said, adding that he eventually had to cancel the show to avoid a citation.
Graveface said he tries to be considerate of his neighbors by handing out flyers and telling them about events, but that noise is in the ear of the beholder.
He believes the community should be more supportive of music venues like his store and The Wormhole, which help revitalize the neighborhood and contribute more entertainment options.
"There's no place for kids to enjoy music. ... It's important to have that in this city, and that's going to go away," said Graveface.
Clausi, the neighbor, said he does not see an agreeable outcome.
"Unfortunately, I think the only potential for resolve is closing the place down. They say they will do otherwise, but they have yet to do otherwise."
Added Clausi: "I do not want to see her go out of business, I just want some cooperation and for her to be willing to remedy this one issue."
Stafford said she's invested in trying to stay in her location and work through the dispute.
"We're trying to help the music scene by having a place for musicians to play at and a place for touring acts to play at. It's been an uphill battle for us, so this makes it worse."