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A Sound Solution to Amphitheatre Feud : A Little Ingenuity Can Turn Adversity to Advantage and Maybe Even a Profit

The Pacific Amphitheatre closed out its sixth concert season last weekend, winding up with back-to-back performances by the Sinner and the Saint (a.k.a. bad boy Rod Stewart and oh-so-sweet Christian singer Amy Grant).

It’s too bad there’s still no end in sight to the longstanding dispute over noise between some Costa Mesa residents and the Pacific operators. Like nuclear waste, this is looking more and more like a problem that will never go away, just diminish in half-lives for eternity.

It’s hard to figure who are the saints and who are the sinners in this dispute, which brings two cornerstones of the American way of life into conflict: free enterprise for the business owner versus the right to peace and quiet in one’s own home.

A handful of people who live near the amphitheater say they are inconvenienced by sounds that seep into their neighborhoods during the 40 to 50 nights of concerts each season.

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(Yet there seems to be little logic in the whole affair: What looked to be one of the most raucous billings of the year--the Aerosmith-Guns N’ Roses hard-rock show in September--drew only eight noise complaints on the first of a two-night sellout stand, according to Costa Mesa police. (Either sound crews made a Herculean effort to maintain low tones, or down at the police station they just couldn’t hear the phone ringing.)

The amphitheater’s owners can rightly argue that they are only responding to public demand. They wouldn’t be in business if there weren’t 10,000 to 18,000 people each willing to fork over $15 to $25 at a typical concert for the pleasure of having his or her eardrums sledgehammered. (Having covered rock and pop shows at the Pacific since it opened, I can testify that a sizable percentage of rock fans actually feel cheated unless the volume knob is cranked up past “Ow!” beyond “Huh?” to “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”)

But one man’s musical nirvana may be another’s purgatory. Even though neighbors can often hear these concerts for free, somehow they don’t react as though they are getting the bargain of the century. And that’s understandable--I suppose if the Oak Ridge Boys’ voices wafted into my house uninvited I’d be forced to shut the window or summon the SWAT team.

Both sides have been wrangling in and out of court for years. Citizens filed suits charging that the builders violated the original environmental impact report; the City Council at one point voted to invoke criminal charges against performers who exceeded certain decibel levels; the theater’s operators filed countersuits against the city charging that city funds were being misused to pay for the residents’ lawsuit. . . .

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One by one, retainer by retainer, new Mercedes by new Mercedes, the endless arguing has so far benefited only one group: the lawyers.

There has been talk of putting a dome over the theater, a la Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre, which literally put a lid on it to quiet the complainers.

Besides being extremely expensive--estimates have run up to $8 million; who would foot the bill?--a roof would bring with it the prospect of year-round concerts. What neighbors stand to gain in reduced volume, wouldn’t they more than sacrifice in traffic and other inconveniences no longer limited to the summer concert season?

Meanwhile, notions of “the pursuit of happiness” for concert-goers fly in direct opposition to such pursuits as would make the homeowners happy.

Who deserves priority? Where is Solomon when you really need him? Or Judge Wapner?

Fortunately, I have my own modest solution, arrived at while sitting through the Aerosmith-Guns N’ Roses show, from both inside and outside the theater. (Who says hard rock isn’t conducive to creative thinking?) I left early and, to hear for myself, drove through the northerly neighborhood where most of the complaints originate.

In several places where I stopped, the sound was just a dull thump, ambient sound that was easily masked by the whir of a passing car or the buzz of a low-flying plane.

But I found one spot, a good half-mile away from the amphitheater, where the sound was amazingly clear. In addition to the pronounced Aerosmith thud of the bass and drums, I could distinctly hear Joe Perry’s slide guitar work and Steven Tyler’s raspy lead vocals.

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Back to my solution. The great thing about American ingenuity is that, as a people, we have a knack for turning adversity into advantage. And money.

Let’s look at the facts: A lot of people want to hear the music being offered at the Pacific Amphitheatre. Something like 410,000 people attended concerts this summer alone. Who knows how many Aerosmith fans were turned away because both nights of the group’s stand were sold out?

On the other hand, there are several neighbors who would rather do most anything--even sully their hands with the muck of the legal system--than be bombarded in their living rooms by some rock group they’d just as soon award a one-way ticket aboard the next space shuttle.

Since many residents don’t want to move--and the amphitheater isn’t about to go away--I suggest a little good old American laissez-faire commerce to the rescue.

Homeowners who are disturbed by the racket should rent out their lawns to fans who can’t get a ticket or, for that matter, don’t want to pay today’s stiff average ticket price. Sure, they wouldn’t see much of what’s happening on stage, but neither can the poor saps who pay $10 or $15 and wind up in the last row on the amphitheater lawn.

Prices, of course, would have to vary accordingly with the sound quality--5, maybe 10 bucks for a lawn chair at the clear-as-a-bell houses, 1 or 2 bucks tops in the dull-thump yards. This might even start driving housing prices up in the prime listening locations. Shoot, people who live near the Los Angeles Coliseum and Sports Arena rake in 10 to 15 bucks a hood just to let people park cars on their lawns on concert nights--dull thud not even included.

I bet the Costa Mesa residents wouldn’t have much trouble getting the Pacific Amphitheatre folks to send over a couple of security guards just to make sure nobody spills any popcorn on the dichondra. And with rental revenue in hand, the residents could afford to take the family to a movie (maybe a revival of “The Quiet Man”), or to the nearest bowling alley for a little tranquility, or down to Baskin-Robbins for a triple scoop of Silence is Golden Vanilla ice cream.

It’s perfect. Like the time-honored American adage says: If you can’t beat ‘em, profit off ‘em.

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