When does entertaining people in one's home become illegal? If I hire a musician to perform in my living room and invite friends over to listen, is that illegal? If I advertise this event publicly, is that illegal? If I display a tip jar, does that constitute a commercial activity? If I call the suggested tip an "artist's donation," giving the proceeds to the performer, does that make my home a commercial venue?
Judging by the actions of the city's zoning department, the answer to these questions appears to be an unequivocal and absolute 'yes.' Though no resident has yet lodged any specific complaint against my events, the City has taken the sweeping and unprecedented gesture of trying to shut down my house concerts -- small, infrequent, in-home, not-for-profit events that I host in my own living room.
To fight the City's aggressive enforcement efforts, I must appear before the planning commission in early October to defend myself. What's at stake is my right to peaceably assemble with guests in my living room and enjoy music supported through the pooling of money.
What is the City's gripe? Beats me. The only neighbor who called the zoning office was unaware of the concerts prior to reading a Gazette article describing the gatherings. If it takes a newspaper article to draw attention to my activity, doesn't that suggest my gatherings have had negligible impact on my neighborhood? Have my gatherings changed the fundamental nature of the residential area if they were not apparent prior to reading a newspaper article?
Before city involvement, I had hosted three house concerts over the prior eight months, without complaint from neighbors. Does that make me a nuisance worthy of a government crackdown? Since September 2000, I have hosted 60 to 80 people for five such shows, an average of one every two and a half months.
Despite these humble statistics, the City says I'm running a commercial activity. Their supposed proof: I suggest donations to support the artists and I advertise the events locally. That I have no intention, ever, of making any money is irrelevant to them. That money is involved at all seems to lead them to classify my activity as "commercial."
The City's posture shows an unwillingness to understand what house concerts really are. House concerts are a growing national phenomenon that provide musicians, whose art is not quite viable within larger, commercial venues, an opportunity to perform in the intimacy of a private home. In addition to their value in promoting the arts, house concerts build community and engender neighborliness. Next to sharing a meal, music is the best way to bring people together. All of this is at risk if a single zoning inspector, prompted by an over zealous neighborhood association, has her way.
I understand the need for zoning laws. I am not a property rights freak. I no more want trash piled in my neighbor's yard than the next guy. (I would, however, talk to my neighbor before calling the City.) I get a little uncomfortable, though, when the City reaches into my living room and dictates how I entertain people. Not once has anyone said, "Gee, Rob, your music sure is loud." In fact, adjacent neighbors confirm the music cannot be heard beyond my property lines. Not once has anyone said, "Gee, Rob, your events sure cause a traffic jam." On a street that carries traffic to Seven Falls, the zoo, Cheyenne Cañon and the Broadmoor, the extra cars are unnoticeable.
Instead, a "neighbor" calls the zoning office after reading a newspaper article and asks, and I quote the zoning official, "Is this legal?" And the zoning officer, well trained from dealing with this same fervid neighborhood association for years, issues a citation.
With one phone call, and a sweeping application of city zoning law, a time-honored tradition of in-home enjoyment of the arts is at risk. With one phone call, and a sweeping application of city zoning law, fundamental rights to the enjoyment of one's property are at risk. With one phone call, I am faced with either acquiescing to an abuse of governmental power or fighting an expensive legal battle.
I have chosen the latter because what I am doing is good. Imagine house concerts in neighborhoods across the city, with neighbors walking down the street with their homemade lasagna to share with friends in the presence of good music. Imagine what that would do for community, neighborliness and property values.
Rob Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.