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DeBrief: Unpacking the City Council’s May 11 Glow Plaza deliberations (commentary)


The Barber Brief is an independent e-newsletter and blog written by Dr. Alicia Barber on the Substack platform. It is reposted by This Is Reno with her permission.

By Alicia Barber

I don’t often go back and analyze City Council discussions after the fact, but I think it’s worth doing every so often to examine how our representatives go about making decisions that affect our community. Watching the Council’s May 11 public hearing of the Glow Plaza and Festival Area appeal raised many concerns for me, and I hope a brief review might help both residents and our Councilmembers understand why.

After that, I’ll have a brief preview of a new skyway being proposed for the heart of downtown, to be reviewed by City Council tomorrow (5/24), and some thoughts on local primary elections.

The May 11 Public Hearing on the Glow Plaza

I previewed this appeal in detail in my May 9 Brief, “Of Decibels and Demographics.” As a reminder, the question at hand was not whether Jacobs Entertainment can use the Glow Plaza & Festival Area on West 4th Street to hold events. It was specifically to decide whether they should be granted a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that would permanently exempt them (and anyone who owns these parcels in the future) from having to apply for a Special Activity Permit for most events there by setting some universal guidelines to govern its operation.

A narrow 4-3 majority of the Planning Commission had agreed on March 16 to issue Jacobs a CUP with some surprisingly lenient parameters: allowing the noise to exceed 85 dB every night of the year—that’s ten decibels higher than the 75 dB level recommended by staff or allowed for all other special events—with 20 events a year (up to four days each) subject to no decibel constraints at all. The CUP as approved would also exempt them from applying for a Special Activity Permit for any events up to a capacity of 3,700 (rather than the staff-recommended threshold of 2,000).

Appealing that decision were two downtown residents—Montage resident Art Rangel (a certified city planner), and Lacy Foster, manager and resident of the Desert Rose Inn just across West 4th street. Mr. Rangel argued in a highly detailed 19-page letter summarized in his presentation that the CUP as approved failed to meet six findings required by the City’s land development code, and recommended retaining the Special Activity Permit requirement for the Glow Plaza until the City can gauge the impact of holding successive large—and loud—events at the venue.

For her part, Ms. Foster emotionally described the effect of last summer’s amplified concerts on her and her fellow residents, who include children and single mothers working double shifts. Clarifying that she wasn’t opposed to the venue, just to raising the allowed decibel levels to 85 dB, she explained that even at the previously allowed levels of 75 dB, “It was miserable….The windows shook. It went to 11 o’clock at night. It was a lot. I just don’t see how that’s okay.”  Public comment, both submitted in advance and live, also focused on the impact of noise on surrounding residents.

It was clear from the outset that City staff had some serious problems with what the Planning Commission had approved. In its presentation, staff made explicit their recommendation to Council: to “modify the Planning Commission decision to include [i.e. revert to] staff recommendations.” They even included a helpful chart to show precisely where the Planning Commission had exceeded them.

The Planning Commission’s decision to raise the allowed daily decibel level by a full ten decibels (each 10 decibel elevation increases perceived sound by a factor of 10) had been shocking, not least because the applicant was not even requesting it. Jacobs rep Garrett Gordon had indicated that although current decibel levels downtown sometimes peak (that’s the key word!) at 82 dB (i.e. with a passing motorcycle), he was satisfied with the proposed limit of 75 dB for “smaller events” at the Glow Plaza, understanding that the number is just an average measured over the course of an hour, and that spikes could still exceed that level.

If the recommended limit of 75 dB would have “set Jacobs up for failure,” as Planning Commissioner Alex Velto had claimed in March when suggesting the increase, Mr. Gordon would surely have said so. He did not. And that’s what made the 85 dB limit the commission approved so incomprehensible. Why would they deem it necessary to allow the Glow Plaza to emit a sustained average level of sound even higher than that of an occasional passing motorcycle? Whose interest does that serve?

I have to believe that the four commissioners who voted to do just that did not clearly understand what they had done (as Planning Commissioner Peter Gower stated in his opposition to their motion, “I don’t think we as Planning Commissioners have the liberty to throw out decibels. We’re not sound engineers. We frankly don’t really know what we’re talking about in that arena.”)  

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