To dance or not to dance; that is the question.

Many of us musicians over the years have been the victims of this legendary lore of a Municipal Code that requires a “Dance Permit.” So here it is. Brace yourselves fellow musicians: there never ever was a city municipal code that controlled the act of dancing in public places in Napa.

Historically the origin or creation of a “Dance Permit” came from the 1950s as a result of the advancement of Rockabilly and Rock-n-Roll, the Satan music. And of course the “Elvis Pelvis,” a shocking display of dancing for which Ed Sullivan was forced only to display Elvis’s moves above the waist.

In previous City Code, the term “dancing” appears only twice prior to 2012, in “Zoning Code 17.10.020 Land Use Regulations Descriptions, Night Club.” Viewing land use regulations you can see that a permit is required for a business if they have these elements, “-with or without accessory serving of beer or wine; -with a bar, live entertainment, or dancing.”

You can see and conclude that the original zoning was confusing, and left to the personal opinions of others to create multiple interpretations of the legal language, resulting in the rumor that a dance permit was required for establishments that had live entertainment and served alcohol.

There is one fact for sure. There is a prohibitive regulation required in Napa County. Napa County Code 5.44.010, requires a dance permit. The story is that a local businessman opened a strip joint in Napa County. The county then moved to restrict dancing during certain hours.

Yet why do the police show up at a private business establishment that is offering Live Entertainment and Dancing? The Napa Police Department under Title 9.50.010 thru 9.50.090 “The Loud and Unruly Gathering Ordinance” must respond to any calls or complaints.

This is practical in form but complicated in structure. Because it ultimately led to the police showing up at music performances asking for a “Dance Permit.” And when the staff of the establishment could not produce the “Dance Permit” they were asked by the police to put tables on the dance floor. To stop the dancing. First time I saw this was at O’Sullivan’s, the second the Nite Cap and eventually a few times when I was performing, including one or two performances at Downtown Joe’s, the tables cutting into the dance floor.

But this crazy train, knee jerking activity really left hard feelings in the musician community and public community for many years. Presently, things have changed as a result of my efforts and political advocacy with the city in concern of developing a better music industry. Now the “Entertainment District” emerges.

But I still get reports from musicians that the tables still take the dance floor at times. Title 9 is a necessary law however it can flip into an obstructing barrier in our music industry.

Over the years rival music entrepreneurs have used the law to complain on each other. That includes promoters, club and restaurant owners and musicians too. And then there is the public. There was a parent that was having management difficulty with a teen and did not want her child hanging out on the patio at one of the restaurants. Easiest solution: call the police and report an infraction.

Dancing and music is stopped, all kids are carded and the night is over. The adults suffer the handcuffs on their civil rights but a mama bear is happy?

Understanding Title 9 and the Noise Regulation, the requirement for an Outdoor Amplified Permit, these are all a part of the system put in place to help deal with problems when they arise. Who can argue against that? Yet myself and many of my professional peers have had to watch inexperienced individuals just starting out in working a music business fail, because they lack education and experience in these matters of running an entertainment/music business. I have been in our music environment for years and I can give a complete history of each and every music venue and demise.

The solution of course is good sensible laws that perpetuate a music industry, not bowing to obstructionism. I would like to educate the City Of Napa in concern of the “Middleman Complex” for which at times they are serious gatekeepers allowing music to go through the gate or not. The musicians are experiencing this obstruction again as an individual has moved into the Oxbow Commercial District and their residency is affecting the local musicians’ best-liked music venue. As musicians we need our venues. The city needs to re-evaluate their protocols and processes.

Dalton J. Piercey is a working musician who lives in Napa.

Editor’s Note: The Register asked the City of Napa about some of the issues raised by the author. Police Chief Steve Potter, after consulting with Community Development Director Rick Tooker, sent the following response:

Many years ago the City of Napa had several establishments that catered and provided ‘nightlife’ to adults. Occasionally the Police Department would get calls regarding fights, noise, occupancy numbers and/or other behavior issues. At that time the city had an ordinance in the Municipal Code that required establishments serving alcohol, providing live entertainment and allowing dancing (combined) to have a “Cabaret License” or permit. I don’t recall the specific title. (Adult Cabaret has an entirely different meaning in the current Municipal Code).

This ordinance went unnoticed by police for several years until incidents at some establishments caused increased police response. The Police Department approach was to use this ordinance on a complaint driven basis to problem solve repeat calls for service to a location.

Not specifically knowing how the City operated in the 1980s relative to enforcement as reported by Dalton, at that time most all municipalities had ordinances regulating noise and requiring some level of city permits (administrative or approved by commissions or councils) for the conduct of live or amplified music in a business, particularly restaurants and bars that became, after typical food service hours, essentially bars, nightclubs, dance halls, etc.

This permitting requirement and its enforcement was a sensible approach, as it is today, because of the potential conflicts between the residential quality of life for nearby homeowners and renters, not to mention issues relating to your line of business such as outdoor consumption of alcohol, occasional fights as people left the venue, excessive noise, etc.

Fast-forwarding to today, the city of Napa has essentially the same process of accommodating businesses that propose entertainment. The city supports those who want to provide and enjoy live or amplified music, whether sitting and standing listening to music or dancing to it, but in a responsible way requiring compliance with basic “good neighbor” principles.

This is most evident in the overarching goal of the 2012 Downtown Specific Plan, which seeks to revitalize Downtown Napa into a vibrant place where residents and visitors alike come together to work, live, play and actively engage in the community. Attending events, markets, festivals, and listening to live music and other entertainment is important to achieving this goal.

However, similar to the 1980s, a framework is in place to ensure that there is reasonable balance for businesses and residences to thrive and to encourage support for both. Riverfront is an example of this, as is Register Square, which is currently under construction and will soon include more than 50 new homes in the downtown.

In the core of Downtown Napa (generally along First Street), entertainment uses are allowed provided certain conditions or performance measures are met, such as minimizing noise outside the business to certain reasonable decibel levels, implementing a security plan to self-monitor hours of operation, training on monitoring alcohol use and consumption, providing litter control, minimizing people loitering in front of the business at close, etc.

Perhaps this is a more comprehensive approach than existed in the 1980s, or more likely an approach that placed more responsibility on business owners to monitor their own behavior, but the fundamental issues are the same regardless of the period in time.

Dalton and others who have participated in this evolution are all to be applauded for their interest in strengthening public policy, support for the arts, and investment in shaping downtown relative to the range of entertainment offered to locals and visitors alike.