On the outskirts of the French Quarter, another battle over live music is brewing, this time between a well-known neighborhood bar and the well-known businessman who lives next door.
In a lawsuit with echoes of — and some of its legal roots in — a 2012 so-called crackdown on unauthorized live music venues by city officials, Sidney Torres IV is suing Buffa’s, arguing the Esplanade Avenue bar marked by its distinctive green and red neon sign should never have been issued a permit for live music and is creating a nuisance.
Buffa’s, which largely avoided controversy two years ago by simply applying for a music permit through the proper channels, has a history of live music that predates Torres’ ownership of the property next door, and it has gone to great lengths to try to accommodate its neighbor, owner Chuck Rogers said Monday.
Buffa’s has been in operation since 1939, and Rogers said documentation shows the bar has hosted live music on a regular basis since at least 1984. That’s three times as long a history of music as the owners would need to demonstrate in order to argue that it deserves to continue hosting shows under city rules on dealing with nonpermitted music venues.
Torres’ suit, which seeks an injunction stopping Buffa’s from hosting live shows, will go to court later this month.
“On a typical day and night, the noises emanating from the property are plainly audible throughout petitioner’s property,” according to the lawsuit.
Rogers said no other neighbor has complained about the live music at Buffa’s and the venue has never been visited by an officer called out by neighbors complaining about the noise.
Torres, a member of a prominent St. Bernard Parish family, became famous in New Orleans for TV commercials he did for a company he owned, SDT Waste and Debris, that collected garbage in the French Quarter and Central Business District. He sold that business in 2011, but he also has operated several small French Quarter hotels, and in 2013, he opened a resort in the Bahamas called The Cove.
Torres, through the company 1011 Esplanade Avenue, has owned the neighboring property since 1999, according to property records. The three-story mansion was put on the market late last year, with its price released only on request, according to real estate website Curbed NOLA.
“As a result of this continuing noise nuisance, and illegal use of the property at 1001 Esplanade Ave., (the owners of 1011 Esplanade) have suffered a diminishment of its property values,” according to the suit. They have also suffered “inconvenience, mental distress, pain and suffering and the loss of use of its property, resulting from factors including but not limited to the inability to sleep, entertain and take solace in the privacy of their home.”
The key elements of Torres’ suit stem from the city’s 2012 crackdown on bars that were featuring live performances without proper permits. Buffa’s was one of the bars targeted, but, unlike other venues and performers who sought to fight the city, Rogers said he and the other members of his family who own the bar opted to quietly comply with the rules.
That meant providing documentation that the bar had been a music venue for years prior to the crackdown, which Buffa’s did by turning over 53 letters from patrons and performers.
“When everyone else was pulling their hair out, we just got a permit,” Rogers said.
“I never felt the city wasn’t behind live music,” he added. “I just felt the city wanted to make sure they were getting their nickel from it.”
But even though Buffa’s provided evidence that it had been hosting live music for at least two years, Torres’ suit claims that’s not enough for a venue in a historic district where he says businesses must prove they have been operating for 10 years before being “grandfathered in.”
The suit also names the city as a defendant, saying officials did not properly do their job when they issued a permit to Buffa’s.
The case spurred Buffa’s once again to ask its customers and bands that had played there to come in over the weekend, adding several dozen more notarized letters attesting to the bar’s history of live music, Rogers said.
The situation is not unique to Buffa’s. Rogers said Hermes Bar in Antoine’s Restaurant succeeded against a similar, recent challenge by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
Rogers, who has owned the bar along with his family for about three years, said he has tried to be a good neighbor to Torres, who used to be an occasional patron at the bar.
The bar keeps two devices for measuring the volume of bands playing in its back room that Rogers said are regularly used to monitor the music. There’s also a general rule that the music should not be so loud that patrons have to yell to be heard, he said.
Rogers said he tried several times to get permission to test noise levels on Torres’ property but that the tests never occurred because Torres either said he could not get experts together or simply did not respond to the request.
The bar also has tried to dampen noise from the live bands by installing a “floating stage” that doesn’t transmit vibrations through the floor, Rogers said. More upgrades in soundproofing were scheduled for this summer but have been put on hold because of the lawsuit and the uncertainty over how much it will cost to defend it, he said.
“We’ve literally done everything possible to satisfy him other than stop live music, which is our bread and butter,” he said.
Rogers said he doesn’t know what the court will decide. But, he noted, without live music the bar could go back to having a jukebox in its backroom, which would potentially be louder and more of a nuisance than the live jazz and folk music it now hosts.
Such a jukebox is not barred by city ordinances.
“That’s the irony of this. When we took over the place, there was a jukebox in the back room,” Rogers said. “We took that out in favor of nice, quality live music.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.