DRB Deliberates HCA Latest Appeal

by June Pichel Cook

GREENSBORO – The Development Review Board (DRB) made no decisions following Monday night’s two-hour Zoom hearing on an appeal from the Highland Center for the Arts (HCA). HCA attorney Robert Halpert presented an appeal to reconsider the DRB’s June 21 decision denying relief from Condition 5 of the HCA’s Conditional Use Operating permit, issued in 2014.

Condition 5 of the operating permit prohibits the center from utilizing amplified sound at events outside the facility. The lengthy hearing was mildly contentious at times.

Atty. Halpert said that the HCA was obviously not happy with the earlier decision and felt the need to point out deficiencies. He cited the lack of factual evidence of adverse sound impacts being presented at the earlier hearing to substantiate the DRB’s denial. He acknowledged that HCA’s evidence of sound impacts had been provided by himself and Executive Director Keisha Luce, which had concluded there would be no adverse impacts. The HCA evidence given at the previous hearing was not based on actual sound level testing, which was conducted on July 2.

Atty. Halpert, Ted Donlon, and Valdine Hall had conducted sound decibel level testing from several locations by testing environmental background noises with and without music sound amplification from the center. The findings were presented in the appeal.

Halpert explained sound amplification was needed for all events which included visiting author’s lectures and other shows, not only music. Without amplified sound, it was impossible to be heard outside clearly beyond the most immediate seating.

At the outset of the hearing, Chair Jane Woodruff noted that she is on the golf course at the Country Club every day and had heard the music sound test while playing golf on July 2. She subsequently heard music from the center on three Sundays as well, even though the course is a mile away. She explained one golf hole, #4, parallels the center’s patio, but the sound could be heard from various holes throughout the course.

Donlon explained the decibel level testing was done with the loudest-case scenario of music from drums, electric bass, bass, and guitar. Sound travel depends on speaker location, weather, distance, frequencies. Halpert said 30– 60 Db is considered quiet; 70-100 Db, loud; and 110-130, unacceptable. Testing was done at HCA’s patio, HCA driveway intersection with Hardwick Street, Hardwick Street/Center Road intersection, Niemi driveway/Center Road, and HCA boundary (tree line opposite the Brochu property). A hand-held, self-contained unit was used, as was an app downloaded to a smartphone.

A car passing by Tolman Corners, without music amplification, registered in the low 70s and is part of the natural environment, Halpert noted. Adding amplified music at the HCA driveway tested at 59 dB and at the Brochu site they (Halpert and Hall) had to call Donlon to find out if they were playing music.

Woodruff later in the hearing questioned how it was possible that music could be heard a mile away on the golf course and not from a distance of several hundred feet.

Luce said it has been a challenge all summer for everyone – patrons, performers, HCA staff – to keep the arts community alive and support local artists. HCA shows have been at full capacity with people on the patio and on the lawn, but it was difficult to hear performances.

“We are struggling with the conditions of non-amplification,” she said.    “We have artists who can’t play or perform under these conditions.”

Her comments were re-iterated later in the hearing by Judy Carpenter, who said she had attended the HCA events, as well as the Sunday VSO performances, and it was not possible to hear the voices.

Performer Maya McCoy emphasized the difficulty of performing without sound amplification outside, loss of subtleties in dialogue, and stage movements to accommodate everyone so they could hear.

Referring to a normal season and being hamstrung by lack of sound amplification, Brent McCoy said, “By this time we would have done 200 performances. This year we are up to seven shows.” Both McCoys expressed gratitude to have the opportunity to do two shows at the HCA.

“This is our living,” McCoy said.

Arlene Averill said she was with Woodruff on the golf course and could hear the music plainly. She said Halpert at the previous hearing had said that the sound would end at HCA property. When walking on the second hole of the golf course, the music was very loud, Averill said.

“It was difficult to be present with what we were doing,” Averill noted. “I appreciate that people need the arts and have been to the facility. I don’t think any music should be that intrusive in the community. It was not okay.”

Select board Chair Peter Romans thanked the volunteers who serve on town boards and said the DRB hadn’t made rules but followed guidelines in town plans that were wishes of the community. He said the HCA had not addressed the original ruling regarding sound amplification correctly and it was not the DRB’s place to have to provide evidence to reverse their decision.

Atty. Halpert corrected Romans and said the appeal was not made to be contentious. It was made to “come up with a solution.” The DRB’s previous decision had no evidence presented by any other party on which to have based its decision. The appeal did not ask the DRB to supply any evidence to reverse its decision.

John Canon echoed Averill’s and Romans’ comments and felt the HCA’s data collection was not as important in a DRB decision than the fact the music could be heard on the golf course. He indicated he understood sound travel depends on the topography, speakers, background noise. Canon said he had attended HCA performances and felt a large part of Greensboro would not be in favor of outside sound amplification. He felt it would degrade the character of Greensboro.

Halpert pointed out the HCA is the only organization not allowed outside sound amplification at performances. Events at the Highland Lodge, Country Club, Circus Smirkus, and wedding venues all use outside sound amplification.

Both Carpenter and Karl Stein emphasized how important sound amplification is for an audience in an outdoor setting. “People say Greensboro is very quiet,” Stein noted, but there is noise from cars, motorcycles, lawn mowers and “we don’t have any restrictions.”

“The DRB is here not for the few,” he said. “It is here for everybody and shouldn’t be making a decision not to allow sound amplification because there are people and in places that find the music too loud.”   

The sound tests taken were even louder than was necessary, he noted.

Referring to sound amplification at HCA, he said, “We are talking about a 1 ½ to 2 hour performance.”

The whole town shouldn’t be denied access to the music because there are a few who find it annoying, Stein noted.

He urged the DRB to grant reprieve from Condition 5: “I respect their opinion (objectors) but we are a community, all of us – not a vocal few.”

Christine Armstrong asked why performances could not be inside. She noted that the HCA had “jumped over all kinds of hoops” to clear the ACT 250 and have its application approved. There were conversations with the DRB about noise contamination at the time and assurances from HCA of the buildings’ insulation.

“This has nothing to do with COVID. HCA can operate inside with a lower number of people. Why aren’t they?”

She felt the issue about being outside was contrived.

Halpert refuted her comments. He noted HCA was already legally authorized to hold outside events. To hold performances inside under Governor Phil Scott’s mandates would allow an audience of 20 people.

Halpert said, “We are not here to make a million dollars. We are trying to serve the community and provide artistic expressions for people’s enjoyment.” He said the HCA had not initially intended to have outdoor performances with sound amplification and were requesting that now.

Julie Brochu, the closest neighbor, spoke about several instances of hearing drum music that woke her up. The music was inside the building, but the door was open. She said that the HCA has always responded to correct any problems.

Carpenter noted there were two months left and asked why the DRB could not allow the outdoor sound amplification and re-evaluate the issue in October.

“There is a middle path without going all the way,” she said.

Before opening the hearing to the public’s questions, Woodruff polled DRB members for questions. Wayne Young had no questions. Lee Wright questioned whether the sound test was representative of performances. Donlon explained that the sound test was the worst-case scenario. Jan Travers asked about sound levels and sound amplification not adding to background noise but being combined with it.

BJ Gray had numerous questions about groups having recorded decibel levels and ways of baffling the sound.

Woodruff had questions about how sound travels from microphone, to mixer, to amplifier, to speakers and wondered why it was not possible to preset a level of sound. Donlon explained that music is dynamic. Musicians adjust their playing to what they hear, adjusting on the “back-end, not on the front-end.”

The Development Review Board is continuing its deliberations. The public will be notified of its decision once it has been made, and minutes are prepared and approved by all members.

This reporter questioned whether the DRB voting would be in closed or open session since deliberations are in closed session without minutes. Woodruff indicated she would clarify as she was not certain.