By Clive Young.
There are lots of reasons why concert venues and their neighbors don’t get along, but sometimes those disagreements can take unexpected turns. That’s what happened in late August when the manager of the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines, IA was arrested for refusing to stop a concert so police could take a sound level reading.
The venue has had a volatile relationship with its neighbors, who have often complained that the Val Air is too loud; in fact, it’s earned three noise violations in the last six months alone, all of which are headed to court. If the Val Air loses, the city could merely slap the facility with a fine—or take more aggressive action. Assistant City Attorney Jason Wittgraf told the Des Moines Register that his office would likely “seek court intervention to limit their hours of operation.”
How did things get this bad? During an August 22 concert by Tower of Power, police were summoned to the club, where they took an SPL reading of the show. A West Des Moines noise ordinance, updated in June due to complaints about the venue, requires that police must take readings with and without music playing before a citation can be issued.
According to the Register, the baseline reading is required in order to see whether the ambient sound is already higher than the ordinance’s limits. Meanwhile, Lt. Michael Ficcola with West Des Moines Police Department explained to local TV affiliate WOI, "There has to be a three decibel difference between the reading with the music and the reading without the music to determine if it's the music that's causing the issues."
After taking an initial reading of the concert, police repeatedly asked manager Scott “Chewi” Lockhart to turn off the sound mid-concert so that they could take a one-minute baseline reading—and he refused.
Lockhart, who became the Val Air manager in April, told the Register, “I had close to 2,000 people in the building that night. If I had stopped the show, who knows what would have happened?" In a separate interview with WOI, he explained, “I had to think about my staff and the patrons and any negative ramifications that could come from shutting down a show in the middle of a show.”
The next day, Lockhart turned himself into police, was arrested for violating the noise ordinance by not stopping the music, and released with a criminal citation. He has requested a jury trial.
Lockhart’s stance seems fairly reasonable; the fact that police didn’t arrest him that night and close down the show would seem to support his argument. But on the other hand, wouldn’t police have a fairly astute sense of whether a crowd was about to go out of control? And it’s not like we’re talking about an act performing violent, aggressive music; it’s a soul band, around since the Sixties, that even played NSCA ExpoJam once. They don’t attract the most dangerous crowd.
Neighbors’ complaints about the venue also take on a bit more weight when you consider that Lockhart himself suggested to WOI that a typical Val Air show runs 105 dB--which he had toned down from a previous average of 120 dB.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens when all this goes to trial, and whether a workable compromise can be reached. What’s your take on this? Share your thoughts below in the Comments.