Live music can be by live wire in New Paltz

Groovy Blueberry and Blueberry Field in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

In the latest version of a decades-long debate over what are the defining characteristics of New Paltz, villagers and ordinary people are figuring out the balance between the right to perform music in front of an audience and the right to quiet enjoyment of home and community. The latest conversation was sparked by the posting of a Facebook petition designed to garner support for continued use of a lot on Main Street next to Water Street Market for live performances. The hope is to make some sort of proposal to the Village Board regarding this use, but a man who lives across the main street raised the issue just a week later, at the April 26 meeting.

The venue in question is called “Blueberry Field” by its owners, who also own the Groovy Blueberry retail store, which is located directly across Water Street from the field. As shown on the petition page, the music is played in front of the store, presumably to take advantage of the available electricity; those present sit in the field opposite. Josh Cohen, the oldest child of Groovy Blueberry owners Amy and John Cohen, organized the petition, writing: “The shows we put on have been a boon to locals old and new, students, tourists and the surrounding businesses. But now we have reached a dead end. We have collected a number of noise complaints over the years. If these noise complaints continue, we will be at risk of taking some serious legal action. Live music is beautiful, but of course it’s loud, so we can’t continue to do shows until this is resolved.”

The noise is what concerned Charlotte Moss enough to speak with village trustees at their April 26 meeting. Moss lives in a Town and Country condo and said that during concerts last summer, the loudness of the music made it impossible to enjoy the porch or yard, but even after going inside, “I could still hear it.” In Facebook other residents said they heard the music drifting up Southside Avenue to South Chestnut Street, on North Front Street and even on Millrock Road. To be clear, these were reports of hearing music; it’s not clear from what’s written online whether others have experienced the level of disruption that Moss described to the trustees. The current definition of ‘noise’ in the village code is ‘Sound that exceeds ambient noise in a particular area to the extent that it is clearly audible and disturbs the peace, comfort, rest or the concentration of a reasonable man of normal sensibility. .” The code also includes in the list of what is considered excessive noise an example that seems to suggest that these performances may qualify: “Noise from any operating sound reproduction system or any device that reproduces or amplifies sound at a level that can be heard 50 feet beyond the property line from where the sound originates.

The online debate was as lively as local issues tend to be, and unsurprisingly, many other issues were raised. They include a debate over the morality of not paying performers when tickets don’t sell, and whether noise complaints are a substitute for political discussion, since both Amy and John Cohen have occasionally run for mayor over the years.

Questions about whether live music is noise predate performances in the area, which Josh Cohen claims began in 2020 when other venues were hit by pandemic restrictions. The Village Noise Ordinance has been revised more than once this century. When a group of residents pushed for changes in 2010, musician and trustee Brian Kimbiz organized a petition against it; instead, village officials put up signs asking for courtesy. Since these signs were not illuminated, it is unclear whether they were noticed by the roaming groups of bar patrons who tend to create a lot of noise that can disturb sleep. A 2016 revision replaced the details of decibel levels at a certain distance with a standard of ‘reasonableness’ that depends on what can be heard with the naked ear.”

Moss has sometimes called the police and admitted that the volume was sometimes reduced after this step was taken. Speaking directly to the property owners is neither required by law, nor is it an option Moss seems comfortable with. Moss added, “It’s not about the music, it’s about the power of the interference,” which may be why “a number of noise complaints” have been “stacked up,” as Josh Cohen writes about this petition.

Among those commenting on Facebook was a man who claimed to have been an employee of Groovy Blueberry at the turn of the century. This person recalled that passers-by and neighbors at the Main Street location sometimes complained about the volume of the recorded music in that store, and claimed that in those days John Cohen would turn the music down for a while and then turn it back up . level.

Mary Ann Tozzi is also a former Groovy Blueberry employee, but worked at the Water Street location. Tozzi said of the recorded music played at the time, “Many times there were complaints, but the music really wasn’t that loud! I answered the phones when Amy was running for mayor and there were some really nasty phone calls… I usually took the complaints as passive aggressive bullshit. Now I can admit that maybe there was an echo and maybe it was louder up the hill, but maybe if the complaints had been presented that way I would have taken them more seriously.

It’s an idea that Mayor Tim Rogers seems to have settled on as well. During the discussion sparked by Moss’s comments at the April 26 public meeting, Rogers speculated that there seemed to be some quality about this particular spot that amplified the sound that it might be the river itself. It is possible that if and when a proposal is brought before this council, the mayor may suggest commissioning a study to determine if this is indeed the case.

Amy Cohen released a statement in response to a press inquiry that read: “As the owners of Blueberry Field, we are delighted to share our sweet sculpture garden with live artists and musicians. Groovy Blueberry’s mission is to empower artists, musicians and peace-lovers – in doing so, we promote goodwill and bring light, love and awesomeness to our corner and community. Thank you for 26 fun years of being your local mom and pop!”