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Des Moines dB Soap Opera Continues

2010-09-14-valairBy Clive Young.

About a month ago, we blogged about a venue in West Des Moines, the Val Air Ballroom, and how its manager, Scott “Chewi” Lockhart, had recently been arrested for refusing to stop a concert so that police could take an ambient sound reading. That post received some of the most passionate responses from our readers ever, so here’s an update on the situation.

For those tuning in late, here’s the story: Lockhart took over as the general manager of the venue back in April, and subsequently the Ballroom was cited three times for noise. While the venue had garnered grumbles over the years, the new complaints were pointed enough that the West Des Moines City Council enacted a new noise ordinance in June, stating that sound outside the venue had to be less than 72 dB during a concert or no more than three dB higher than an ambient sound reading taken that day.

The venue had already been fined once this year in May, and after the ordinance went into effect, it was tagged again for a Saving Abel show on August 4. The going rate is $250 for a first offense, $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third, but the kicker is that garnering three or more offenses in a year gives the city attorney’s office grounds to pursue limiting an offending business’ hours or even shut it down.

With that threat looming in the air, police showed up to a Tower of Power show on August 22 after receiving yet more complaints. They took a concert-level reading and then asked Lockhart to stop the show for a few minutes so that they could take a one-minute ambient level reading. He refused, stating that with 2,000 people inside, the result could be an unruly disaster. Cited again for violating the ordinance, Lockhart had to turn himself into police the next day, where he was arrested and released.

So what’s happened since then? Plenty.

Now Magistrate Judge James Piazza has dismissed the first violation from May and questioned the feasibility of the new noise ordinance. Lawyers for the defense highlighted the fact that Quest Technologies, the manufacturer of the noise measurement gear used by the city, notes in its documentation that as a general guideline, violators should not be cited unless levels are at least 10 dB over ambient levels recorded immediately before a violating event.

Good news, right? Now the Ballroom was back down to only two violations. Well, believe it or not, the venue was hit with a fourth noise citation, this time for a Bone Thugs N Harmony concert on September 28. On this occasion, the dB level was 74 decibels—only two above the limit of 72.

The Des Moines Register reports that assistant city attorney Jason Wittgraf—who wrote the new ordinance—won’t pursue the fourth citation, telling the paper, “I’m not anticipating that we’re going to file on that one. I know our ordinance only says three, but unless there’s some unique set of circumstances, I’m looking, to be safe, to go with what the manufacturer recommends.” That said, Wittgraf is still pursuing the two violations from August, which are expected to head to court this fall.

In the meantime, there’s signs that the Val Air Ballroom is trying to be a good neighbor. The fact that the fourth citation was only two dB above the limit could be interpreted as the venue trying to live within the law, but more concrete evidence can be found in the fact that on October 4, Lockhart asked the city council to reconvene the committee that devised the sound ordinance, and the council agreed, stating that it would regroup within two months.

While all this has been going on, music has been heard inside the Ballroom occasionally during the day in recent months: The Val Air became the temporary host of Jazzercise classes that were displaced from the West Des Moines Community Center after flooding ruined that building’s wooden floors—although one suspects the classes might not be as loud as Bone Thugs N Harmony.

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By Paul Gonzalez, 12/13/2010 6:49:55 AM
In addition to The 72dB limit, the new sound ordinance in West Des Moines states the music will be measured C weighted, while the local business will be measured A weighted, as to not make the local businesses in violation of the ordinance. The law says this verbatim.

By Phil Reigh, 10/7/2010 5:41:17 PM
A couple of years ago, I testified at a hearing in Pennsylvania pertaining to noise levels at a club with a liquor license. The township had enacted a noise ordinance along the lines of the one listed in the article. I took my SPL meter to the hearing and took readings outside of the building and made some measurements inside during the hearing process. I made it a point to be the last one to testify. I put the SPL meter beside me while I testified, to make a point. The hearing officer had asked a couple of people to speak up, to get a good recording of the testimonies. I mentioned to them that at my normal speech level, I was in violation of their noise ordinance, without any amplification. You should have seen the jaws drop from the officials. They asked if the club had hired me to testify. They did not. I told them that club did not even know that I was going to testify at the hearing. They asked why I did. I told them that I thought the science should be brought into the discussion to prove how low their levels really were in comparison to actual sound pressure levels from passing traffic and normal conversations. They were at a loss for words.

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