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Baltimore County Council approves bill allowing live music at hundreds more restaurants

Despite criticism from Baltimore County Council members and residents last week, the council approved amended zoning changes allowing hundreds more restaurants to host live music.

Proposed by Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., the NOTE Act, short for New Opportunities for Tourism and Entertainment, will make certain businesses that make most of their money before 9 p.m. eligible for a permit to host live or recorded musical entertainment.

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The bill passed by a 5-2 vote Monday night, with councilmen Todd Crandell and Izzy Patoka voting against it.

The NOTE Act is modeled after 2019 legislation that changed zoning rules in Arbutus and Catonsville. Beyond those southwestern towns, live music has been allowed only at nightclubs on property zoned for Business Major and Business Roadside use.

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Mike Mohler, chief administrator for the county Board of Liquor License Commissioners, said in an interview that many restaurants already were hosting live music. But 53% of restaurants are on land where zoning laws prohibit live music.

Residents who testified during a hearing on the bill last week had asked that it be amended to prohibit live music permits for restaurants within a specified distance of a home.

However, Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, worried that disqualifying restaurants directly adjacent to homes would hurt restaurants in her district that already host live music and have made efforts to be conscientious to neighbors.

Responding to that concern, a planned provision of the bill that would have prevented restaurants from obtaining a permit if it abuts residential property lines was removed.

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Another amendment that would have empowered five county agencies — the county’s Department of Permits, Approvals, Inspections, police and fire departments and the health department — to shut down a business should it produce too much noise also was stripped out after some on the council feared government overreach.

Although a county spokesman said Monday that police are responsible for handling noise complaints, the new regulations would leave responses to live music complaints to the county’s permits and inspections department, Mohler said.

The codified bill also exempts many nonprofits, chambers of commerce and businesses in areas that have obtained state designations, such as Reisterstown Main Street and Catonsville’s Arts and Entertainment District, from needing a permit.

In a statement, Olszewski thanked the council “for voting to create new opportunities for small businesses and musicians across Baltimore County with the NOTE Act.”

“Our local performers and businesses need our help to ensure they recover as quickly as possible,” he said.

Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said he voted against the bill because of community leaders’ concerns about expanding live music. His proposal to amend the bill and end its authorization after one year didn’t gain traction with other council members.

Crandell, a Republican who represents the southeastern Dundalk and Edgemere areas, previously said the bill was too sweeping and questioned how the county would enforce it. During a hearing on the bill last week, some council members said determining when the county’s noise ordinance is violated is largely subjective.

Mohler told council members that the liquor board had 16 hearings regarding noise complaints at restaurants last year. Five were issued fines.

In 2019, Mohler said, the board had six hearings and issued three fines for music complaints.

“With our history, I’m not sure you need [a sunset provision],” he said. “You certainly have the opportunity to change it in the future.”

Mohler has said the intent of the permit system is to give restaurants another tool to draw in customers after profits were battered by the coronavirus pandemic. He envisions restaurants holding jazz brunches and live acoustic guitar performances.

Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, whose district includes Catonsville, agreed.

“Live music done properly...,” he said, “really can go a long way in bringing consumers and bringing commerce back.”

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