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ProTools and ConTools: The Battle Over Metro's Home Studio Ban Heats Up For 2020

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It’s been almost five years since East Nashville recording engineer Elijah “Lij” Shaw saw his home recording studio get reported to, and shut down by, Metro Nashville. And he’s been telling his story far and wide ever since. The latest forum, a “Save Music City” home studio expo held last week on Music Row.

“When I built my studio and decided to dedicate my life to doing this here in Nashville, I knew nothing about there being a disallowance for home recording studios,” he said. “Nobody I knew talked about it. We just didn’t know. It was being done everywhere and still is to this day.”

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Home studio advocate Lij Shaw.

Shaw doesn’t dispute that he was in violation of a 1998 ordinance prohibiting home-based businesses in Nashville from serving clients on their premises. He, and the pro bono civil liberties attorneys supporting his activism, are saying that law is unfair and out of touch with the the history and soul of Nashville as well as the economics of the new music business. They’re hoping 2020 is the year they finally get a legislative fix.

“Today,” Shaw told the assembled producers and musicians, “there is some new legislation that’s being discussed, and there seems to be a lot more excitement and interest in solving this and finding a solution that’s going to work for everybody.”

The bill, BL2019-48 sponsored by council member Dave Rosenberg, would allow, with rules, clients to visit home-based businesses. Besides studios, in-home hair stylists, accountants, even tutors and music teachers are effectively prohibited by Nashville.

Reason magazine reported last year that while most cities regulate client visits and neighborhood impact of home-based businesses, Nashville was the only major city they could find in the nation with a blanket ban. One home-based engineer at the Saturday conference said he operates with no problem in Brentwood, just a short walk from the Nashville city limit, where his business would be illegal.

Council member Jeff Syracuse, who backs the bill, told WMOT that this is the fifth attempt in ten years to break the impasse. Opposition, he says, comes chiefly from an organization called the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance, which demands a bright line between residential and commercial zones. 

“I think there’s a misunderstanding from how studio owners operate, how they don’t operate,” Syracuse said. “They just want to be good neighbors.” On the other hand, most resistance to more liberal home business rules in his experience stems from the fear of other possible uses. “Are you going to get a payday loan business opening up? Will they put up a sign? Will there be cars in the yard? The issues are the unintended consequences. I think people do have a heart for the studios, but it’s all those other issues. People want to be able to protect the residential character.”

A letter submitted to the the sponsor of BL2019-48 by the Coalition For Nashville Neighborhoods notes that it's been opposing client-driven home business for up to thirty years. "Arguments then, as now, against home businesses are that most homeowners select residential areas for peace and quiet, and do not want commercial businesses near their homes," they wrote.

Audra Ladd, an economic development official with Mayor John Cooper’s new administration, told the home studio summit that getting a new plan through the Metro Council will require a variety of home-based business owners to work together and be heard. “I would encourage this community to reach out to other communities that are also affected to basically form a coalition,” Ladd said. “I think there’s a path forward.” 

The other theme struck at the meeting was the vital importance of showing up at all relevant hearings, including the next Metro Council look at BL2019-48, which is set for March 5. There’s also a petition, established by Lij Shaw two weeks ago. To date it’s received almost 30,000 signatures.

Update: Prior to the Metro Council hearing, the bill will be taken up by the Metro Planning Commission on Feb 27, according to Councilmember Syracuse.