PARKS & AMPLIFICATION

Inside the East Nashville noise wars

Since moving into her new, sustainable house in Historic Edgefield — the construction of which included two-by-six-inch studs, both cellulose and foam insulation, all-brick construction, and sturdy casement windows — Dr. Karen Younghale says that outside noise has never been an issue. That is, unless Ascend Amphitheater has a show booked.
     Her calm was first stirred on Aug. 9, when the new venue hosted its first heavy rock show: Marilyn Manson and The Smashing Pumpkins. Younghale — despite turning on a fan for white noise and placing earplugs in her ears before retiring for the evening — reports that the concert kept her awake long past her usual bedtime. 
     “I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. the following morning for work,” she says. “As an emergency room physician, it is necessary for me to get proper sleep so I can be alert and available when there are life-threatening emergencies that need to be tended to. I think the Amphitheater is an asset to our city. However, I believe 11 p.m. is too late to be playing loud music.”
Former Metro Councilmember Eileen Beehan, who lives on Fatherland Street, says that even with the venue’s Metro-mandated 11 p.m. curfew, the amphitheater still too often assaults her ears.
     “I am grateful for that,” Beehan says of the curfew. “However, the sound is intrusive. I’ve resided in my house for 21 years. We’ve never had these experiences, to this degree, with the Country Music Festival, the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve, or with athletic events at Nissan Stadium. I appreciate the opportunities that we have in Nashville for entertainment, but the heart of any community is the people who live there every day.”
     Younghale and Beehan aren’t alone in their concern. At one point, complaints about the noise from Ascend and other outdoor concerts and events reached such a fever pitch that they were being forwarded directly to the mayor’s office, District 6 Metro Councilmember Brett Withers says.
     Withers, who had just bested Peter Westerholm for the position, took the brunt of those complaints, along with Metro Parks and Recreation. He says the initial contact from constituents took him 
by surprise.
     “Election Day was Aug. 6, and I took office on Sept. 1,” Withers says. “During the months of August and September and escalating into October, contacts about noise from a variety of sources were second in number only to requests for sidewalks and traffic calming. Now, with sidewalks being a huge campaign issue in the mayoral race, everybody was talking about sidewalks, crosswalks, and stop signs. So for noise complaints to come in second only to sidewalk requests — and notably for District 6, for noise complaints to come in far ahead of concerns about house teardowns and 
tall skinnies — was quite a statement.”
     Withers says he expected a few complaints connected to the opening of Ascend Amphitheater, but soon learned that the noise complaints didn’t stop there. “There were complaints from one or two noteworthy Ascend Amphitheater concerts, but also about noise from an electronic dance music concert at Nissan Stadium on a school night, some noise complaints from Basement East, a noise complaint from a Dino’s live music performance, and a number of noise complaints from short-term rental properties where outdoor parties were taking place,” he says. “As September wore on, noise complaints were becoming an increasing concern expressed to me, and I began tracking those with various Metro departments including the East Precinct, since noise complaints typically occur at night and so neighbors must contact the police department to record a noise ordinance violation, which later gets forwarded to the Codes department.”
     A couple weeks after the election, Withers received a call from Metro Parks’ Natural Resources & Cultural Arts and Special Events coordinator Jim Hester. “I had already received enough Ascend-related constituent complaints from throughout District 6 that Jim Hester at Metro Parks had proactively contacted me to establish lines of communication,” Withers says. “I felt that, as a councilmember, my responsibility to my constituents was to ask good questions and seek solutions where possible. We then scheduled a meeting at Ascend Amphitheater with Jim Hester, me, District 19 Councilman Freddie O’Connell, and representatives from Live Nation [which manages the amphitheater] to determine what, if anything, could be done to address these concerns.
     “It was really this discussion that solidified the current agreement with Live Nation,” Hester says. “They (Live Nation and Metro Council) both continue to check in to see about progress, and with the latter, pass along various questions from their constituents. We heard no sound problems at all with Ascend until the Marilyn Manson show on Sunday night, Aug. 9. After that, we had a handful of complaints from the Sublime show, and a few from Janet Jackson’s show, which was also on a Sunday night.
     “Amphitheaters are by nature open-air, and thus send out sound,” Hester continues. “What’s more, the Ascend Amphitheater was overwhelmingly approved by the city and the populace. How do you balance trying to allay people’s concerns with not having to feel like you need to address every phone call or snarky email? We did review other urban outdoor amphitheaters’ operating agreements with their municipalities and how they went about sound mitigation. All the urban ones — such as Chastain Park in Atlanta — have agreements very similar to the one we now have with Live Nation.”
     As concerns Ascend, Withers points out the city itself is somewhat limited in its powers to police noise levels. “One thing about Metro’s noise ordinances that is important to remember is that Metro-owned outdoor venues, including Ascend Amphitheater and Nissan Stadium, are exempt. So whereas Fontanel is a privately owned outdoor live music venue that must abide by regulations and agreements, Ascend Amphitheater is not similarly restricted other than having 
11 p.m. curfews.” 
     While the October meeting marked a productive start toward working on solutions about noise at some Ascend Amphitheater shows, it also marked the peak of what Withers calls a “perfect storm” of East Nashville constituent concerns about events at parks in general. Within the same month, he says, he got separate complaints from Edgefield residents upset about East Side Social (Oct. 3) and about the Tootsie’s Birthday Bash (Oct. 22), and general complaints about noise resulting from a 7:30 a.m. 5K run and from the screening of the movie Ghostbusters, both held in Shelby Park. [It should be noted that The East Nashvillian is a partner with the Shelby Park Picture Show, which produces the event during which Ghostbusters was shown. —The Editor]
 
Hibah Qubain, president of the Historic Edgefield Neighborhood Association, says noise complaints from residents in Edgefield and beyond aren’t a new phenomenon. What is new, she says, is the frequency of the complaints. “There have always been complaints about noise due to the fireworks downtown,” she says. “After Ascend opened, however, the complaints significantly increased. I think this might have been due to the fact that the noise went on for three or four hours, and the fact that it was often during the week, when people had to go to work the next day and kids had to go to school. I realized this was an issue when I could hear concerts, clearly, in my home a mile away, and people three miles away also complained about hearing it.”
     Continuing, Qubain says, “How rude to allow a venue (like Ascend) to be plopped down in the middle of thousands of residents with no thoughts to noise. The amphitheater has a design that does not trap sound well. We all love live music, but if someone is hearing it three miles away, you can turn it down by half and still have it be loud enough for the people who are attending. A ton of residents made this city safe enough to have these venues thrive and as a thank you they make the noise unbearable. They should be so proud.”
     Bill Holden, a Historic Edgefield board member, says the occasional noisy gig is part of the excitement of living in a vibrant and diverse urban neighborhood. “When we first moved to the area about five years ago, the noise complaints were about fireworks from the CMA festival, New Year’s Eve celebrations, and Titans games. We typically would receive a notice in the mail or via email about the special event details so the late-night noise didn’t come as a surprise.
     “We weren’t bothered by any of that; most communities, both urban and rural, have fireworks and other such events, and the displays put on here are fantastic. The complaints on our neighborhood Listserv and Facebook page shifted with the opening of Ascend Amphitheater. Most complaints were related to the volume and frequency of the live music events, and particularly those on weeknights. We think the events had kind of a cumulative effect on people who were already bothered to begin with.”
     Holden adds that he can sympathize with his quiet-craving neighbors, but notes that you can’t call yourselves the music capital of the United States and not expect to hear some every now and again. 
     “Most cities have outdoor music venues as assets to their respective communities,” Holden says. “The closing of Starwood [Amphitheater] created a void for outdoor music venues, which has been filled by The Woods at Fontanel and Ascend Amphitheater. Music fans travel from all over to spend their hard-earned money at live music events. They also stay in local hotels and eat at our local restaurants. We need to find a workable compromise. We’re called Music City for 
a reason.”
 
Withers says some compromises have been made, with a few already in effect. For instance, since the meeting Oct. 1, Metro Parks and Live Nation have entered into discussions including a recent Parks-approved agreement stating that “during any Concert Event the overall spectrum of the dB level as measured at the furthest point of the property line of the Park from the edge of the stage shall not exceed an overall spectrum of 98dBA for any five consecutive minute period.”
     But what of the other sources of noise in the neighborhoods? According to both Withers and Hester, Metro Parks is working on that, too. Both note, however, the best course of action may be talking to the offending neighbor first.
     “Metro has been responsive to constituent concerns that I have forwarded about noise from specific events in parks, including East Park and Shelby Park,” Withers says. “In some cases, the Parks department is using this feedback to provide better guidance to parks users about start/stop times and speaker placement directions for those who seek amplification permits. If noise complaints persist, that could justify the denial of amplification permits for repeat offenders.”
     “There were only a couple of complaints on the Shelby/Old Timers Field movie nights, and we did ask organizers to turn it down,” Hester says. “We had no more complaints after that. We will continue to monitor and talk to the organizers as needed to keep that under control. On occasion, we hear about something from an event at East Park, but that usually involves an event going over the permitted time. [Parks Director] Tommy Lynch has directed us to implement a new rule that prohibits amplified sound past 8 p.m. on weeknights,including Sunday, and 10 p.m. on weekends. This applies to all residential area parks in the city, not including downtown parks.”
     Section 11.12.070 of the Municipal Code states that it is unlawful for any person “to operate or allow the operation of any sound amplification equipment so as to create sounds that are plainly audible from the boundary line of the nearest residentially occupied property.” Which means, Withers says, “that yes, your neighbor’s guitar amplifier is too loud if you can hear it at your house. In order to address the concern, you might speak to them first, but otherwise a police call may be in order.”
     If it’s a famous rock band’s amplifiers causing your anguish, the solution might not be quite so simple — public-private enterprises often have a lot of moving parts that must be coordinated to work efficiently in tandem. But both Hester and Withers are quick to point out that most of the Ascend complaints came on nights they had bass-ier type shows on school nights rather than straight-ahead rock acts, which could mean that, moving forward, the issue could also be addressed with an eye to more sensitive scheduling.
     “Live Nation has sound level monitoring equipment, and Metro Parks staff have hand-held devices available,” Withers says. “To provide an example of how Metro Parks staff are working to monitor this issue, Jim Hester sent me a photo of his device reading taken from the Korean Veterans Bridge during the Pretty Lights concert on Halloween night.The measurement was 84.6 dBA, versus the regular noise ordinance requirement that sound levels not exceed 85 dBA at the property line of the nearest residential property. 
     “Discussions are ongoing about more permanent sound monitoring solutions,” he continues. “But these actions show a good faith effort to address the problem, and I am optimistic that everyone is aware of the concern and working together to solve it.”