That Dramatic Petition About Noise Complaints At The Pie Shop, Explained
H Street Northeast pie purveyor and indie-music haven Dangerously Delicious sent an urgent message over Twitter last Wednesday.
“We, an established DC small business, literally a mom and pop business run by a husband and wife team for over 9 years in the H St corridor, are being challenged by a neighbor who moved in just 1 year ago. We need your support! Please sign our petition.”
What followed was a blend of support (including more than 4,000 signatures), derision, and general confusion.
Within 24 hours, community newspaper Hill Rag, nightlife blog Barred in DC, and neighborhood website Frozen Tropics had all taken notice of the cryptic petition, perhaps due both to Pie Shop’s increasing relevance in the local music scene (its performance roster includes Del Florida, Near Northeast, Color Palette, Allthebestkids, FuzzQueen, and Lotion Princess) and the dire timbre of the plea.
Dangerously Delicious co-owner Sandra Basanti says the public response to the petition was more explosive than she’d anticipated.
“I don’t think anyone thought it was going to snowball, [and it] was wonderful to see all of the support, obviously,” Basanti said after a brief roll-call hearing (during which future meetings are scheduled) Monday morning related to her alcohol license renewal. “I guess this does make everyone realize that it’s a little bit of a bigger issue than our license being up for renewal.”
The larger issue to which she is referring, she said, is the role D.C. residents’ complaints can play in determining how a business can move forward.
Last summer, Basanti and husband and co-owner Stevie McKeever expanded the business they have operated since 2010 from a tofu-curry and chess pie outfit to include an entertainment venue, establishing a concert space called Pie Shop on the second floor.
But at an April meeting of the local Alcoholic Beverage Licensing Committee of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A, the license renewals of several neighborhood businesses were discussed, including that of Dangerously Delicious. This is a common practice for renewals. According to meeting minutes, a nearby resident, a lawyer named Ramsey Taylor, raised concerns about the noise level of Pie Shop. He said the venue’s rear door was not soundproof and was sometimes left ajar, allowing music to spill out into the alley behind the venue. (Taylor did not respond to an interview request.)
Basanti, meanwhile, noted that the stage is set toward the H Street side of the building and thus sound must travel down the approximately 175-foot-long building and across the green room out back in order to reach Taylor’s home. After some discussion, Jay Williams, committee co-chair and a former commissioner of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, moved to recommend that the ANC protest Dangerously Delicious’ license renewal unless an agreement could be reached among the parties involved.
“A protest sounds like a really harsh thing,” Williams tells DCist. “[It sounds as if] we’re coming out and we’re saying, ‘This license should not be renewed.’ That is not what we’re saying at all. What we’re saying is there’s some issue that we as an ANC or the neighborhood is having with an establishment, and we may need to ultimately submit it to the board for a decision.”
So what are Pie Shop’s next steps? There are many.
Standard operating procedure when a noise issue arises that the ABL committee feels is valid, Williams says, is that it recommends the ANC file a protest with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. The ANC then continues negotiations with the business and afflicted parties in an attempt to reach an agreement before the date of a potential protest hearing, which in Basanti’s case is slated for July 31.
It’s during that hearing—which follows a miniseries of other meetings (roll-call, mediation, and status hearings)—that an ANC representative, the complainant, and the business owner discuss the case in a sort of trial-like setting before the full Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. But Williams says he hopes it won’t come to that.
“The solution is pretty simple. I don’t think there’s a lot that needs to be done,” Williams says, noting that the discussion ended fairly amicably at the April ABL committee meeting. “Sandra was very upfront, saying, ‘I disagree that it’s as big a concern as Mr. Taylor’s saying, but we want to be a good neighbor; we want to put in reasonable measures to mitigate this so we don’t have the problem.’”
In other words, if the ANC can help Dangerously Delicious and Taylor negotiate some sort of noise-mitigation solution that works for all parties, the protest hearing may be avoided altogether. If not, the fate of the company’s ABC license may be in question for months, and the business may incur hefty legal fees in the process—all for claims that, to date, have not been substantiated with documented evidence.
Though ABRA noise inspections have been done on Basanti’s property, records show Dangerously Delicious to be in compliance with city noise regulations—a point that neither Williams nor an ABRA representative disputes.
(In case you were curious, here are city guidelines on just how loud is too loud for ABC licensees: According to D.C. Official Code Title 25, licensees must not, with some exception, “produce any sound, noise, or music of such intensity that it may be heard in any premises other than the licensed establishment.” That regulation goes on to state that licensees must adhere to specific noise levels, which vary depending on the zone. The D.C. Council is currently considering legislation that would change the way noise is measured in the city.)
This revelation seems to suggest that D.C. residents are effectively able to challenge businesses through the mere claim of of wrongdoing, rather than having to present evidence to that effect.
“I understand when an establishment says, ‘Well, we have no documented noise complaints,’” Williams says. “I hear that and I understand that. But I also have a neighbor who, in my mind, is raising legitimate concerns that can probably be solved by something that’s fairly reasonable.”
Dangerously Delicious does have some prior violations of its settlement agreement, the written accord ABC licensees make with ANCs. According to ABRA records, the company was dinged five times from 2012-2018 for violations of its agreement, such as exceeding patio occupancy during the 2012 H Street Festival.
Richard Bianco, real-estate lawyer who has represented several D.C. bars and entertainment spaces over the past two decades, says what Dangerously Delicious is facing is “nothing new.” He notes that parties can make claims that move forward without evidence, leaving businesses with a difficult decision.
“It’s the gun-to-your-head scenario: You can either make them happy, or you can fight them for the next several months,” Bianco says. “And financially, a lot of times, the second option is not even a reality” due to legal and other costs.
Bianco characterizes the existing regulatory structures as favoring community members over businesses. Yet Williams disagrees.
“We represent the community, and the community is both the residents and the businesses,” Williams says. “There have definitely been times when we’ve not moved forward with action against an establishment despite neighbors’ raising concerns because we think it’s not as big an issue as they think it is, or there’s some other underlying issue that’s not related to the claim they’re making.”
Since she initially posted the petition last week, Basanti has changed the wording to clarify that “we are not at war with the ANC or ABRA.”
“I really don’t want to go to trial,” Basanti says. “I would rather just come to some sort of middle ground and keep the peace.”
This story has been updated with a clearer description of what occurs at a protest hearing.