by June Pichel Cook
GREENSBORO – The Development Review Board (DRB) upheld its decision to deny the Highland Center for the Arts’ appeal for relief from Condition #5 of its Conditional Use Permit.
The board’s reconsideration of the DRB’s June 18, 2020 decision, rendered on August 17, was unanimous.
However, on a split decision, the board granted a summer reprieve until October 15 from Condition #5. Condition #5 prohibits sound amplification at outdoor events.
On July 8, Attorney Robert Halpert appealed the board’s earlier denial, citing deficiencies in its decision. Testimony given by Halpert and HCA Executive Director Keisha Luce stated there would not be an adverse effect on sound pollution in the area.
Halpert argued that not enough objective evidence was presented at the June hearing to enable the DRB to make a decision. No factual evidence was presented by other witnesses. A sound test was conducted on July 2 to provide objective evidence for the DRB’s reconsideration and its findings were presented at the August 10 hearing.
The board commenced closed deliberations immediately after the hearing, recessed, and met again the morning of August 11. The DRB was not convinced to change its mind.
Under Section 5.4 of the Greensboro Zoning By-Law, the DRB found, generally: “The use of amplified sound would adversely affect the character of the area.” In its decision, the board cited testimony from Julie Brochu, a neighbor, who heard music from inside the HCA several times and once, when a door was left open, the sound had awakened her.
The board noted: “Although the HCA apologized when she called and solved the problem, this is not indicative of, nor in keeping with the character of a rural community, especially since it has happened more than once.”
Under Section 5.4 of the bylaw, the board determined specifically: “The use of amplified sound will adversely affect the noise pollution in the area.” They cited as evidence the neighbor’s testimony and testimony from two witnesses who “spoke of hearing the music on all holes of the golf course during the sound test and at Sunday brunch time along the seventh hole which runs parallel to HCA.”
The Sunday unamplified music, according to the decision, “was far less loud than the amplified sound test and was more in keeping with the quiet nature of the rural lands district.”
The decision notes: “However, these instances speak to the problem of noise generated at the facility.”
Chair Jane Woodruff and Arlene Averill testified to hearing the music while playing golf at the Mountain View Country Club during sound tests on July 2. Woodruff stated that she could hear unamplified music and talking from the Sunday brunches when she was on the hole directly across the road from the HCA.
Attorney Halpert presented testimony on July 2 sound tests conducted by Ted Donlon, Valdine Hall, Executive Director Keisha Luce and himself. Vice Chair Nat Smith independently participated in the testing using his own decibel meter which “generally agreed with the HCA findings.” The sound testing was done in five places on the HCA boundaries; two devices were utilized. Environmental noise in the area was tested without music and then with sound-amplified music.
Background noises averaged between 30dB and low 40dB. With music playing, sound levels reached 83 dB on the HCA patio, decreasing to 54 dB to 59 dB at the HCA driveway entrance. The sound level at the ballfield with music playing reached 45 dB to 47dB; the music could not be heard or measured at the Niemi’s driveway.
The decision notes: “When tested, amplified recorded music seemed to have a lesser impact than live music.”
Levels from 10dB, (a person breathing), to 150dB (a jet plane taking off), were explained. Quiet noise levels range from 30dB to 60dB; moderately loud, 60dB to 90dB; very loud, 90dB to 110dB; and, 110dB to 130dB, uncomfortably loud.
Atty. Halpert felt the sound testing “shows amplification of events there (HCA) would not have an adverse effect on the character in the area.”
He noted that HCA was amenable to the summer being a test period that would be expanded into the future “if things went well.”
It was noted that sounds are subjective; unpleasant sounds seem louder than pleasant sounds at the same decibel level. Sound travels in a straight line, which explained why it was heard on the golf course further away and not heard at Niemi’s driveway, which is closer. The direction of the speakers plays a role in the way sound travels; the back of the speakers faced the Niemi’s driveway.
Director Luce spoke of the challenge in holding events within COVID-19 guidelines and trying to support local artists. Without sound amplification, it was difficult for an outdoor audience to hear voices; the performers had to be aggressively loud.
Testimony cited at the hearing urged the board that decisions should not be solely based on the pandemic and all residents should be taken into consideration, not only those who attend events. It was noted that the Highland Lodge, Mountain View Country Club, July Fourth celebration, Sunday music on the lake, and Circus Smirkus have, and are permitted to have, amplified sound outside.
John Canon felt it was more important to “hear what people say about hearing the music on the golf course and the neighboring properties than looking at the decibel levels.”
The 7-0 vote to deny the appeal was unanimous. Voting were Chair Jane Woodruff; Vice Chair Nat Smith: Clerk/Alternate, Janet Travers; BJ Gray, Linda Romans, Lee Wright, Wayne Young. MacNeil recused from deliberations and voting; alternate Mike Metcalf did not vote.