Putting a Lid on Loud Music? : Noise-Control Laws May Vary From Site to Site

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Times Staff Writer

It was just last week that the U.S. Supreme Court heard lawyers argue whether the law allows those who would like some peace and quiet to put a sonic damper on a rock concert bent on reaching high-decibel nirvana.

In Orange County Superior Court, such matters have been filling ever-growing volumes of legal files for more than five years.

Since 1984, the Pacific Amphitheatre and a group of its Costa Mesa neighbors have been fighting in court over the point when a boisterous outdoor concert stops being fun and becomes a public nuisance. The Supreme Court case, which involves New York City’s attempt to enforce noise limits at a Central Park concert band shell, apparently won’t have any immediate bearing on the Pacific Amphitheatre case.


Richard L. Spix, attorney for Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, the group that has sued amphitheater management to tone down concert volume, took some heart from New York’s ability to get the Supreme Court to consider the concert noise issue. But Spix said a different set of ground rules govern the Costa Mesa suit, because no noise-control law similar to the New York City regulation is in effect. Neil Papiano, attorney for Ned West Inc., the arm of the Nederlander Organization that runs the Pacific Amphitheatre, said Wednesday that he wasn’t familiar with the Supreme Court case.

In the New York case, the city tried to take the control of the volume knobs out of performers’ hands and put a city-supplied technician in charge, while also requiring that a city-supplied sound system be used. A federal appellate court ruled that the restrictions deprived performers of their constitutional right of free expression, prompting the city to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. New York City’s attorney in the case, Leonard J. Koerner, said Thursday that a ruling isn’t expected before the end of May.

Spix said the Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa isn’t pressing to take the control out of Pacific Amphitheatre management’s hands. Its aim is to have the managers of the 18,700-capacity amphitheater take initiatives of their own to put a lid on sound levels the neighbors maintain are excessive.

Each side contends the other’s measurement of sound levels in the neighborhood is flawed, and Papiano denies that the limits set by a county noise ordinance have ever been broken. Pacific Amphitheatre officials have been adamant about not restricting performers’ sound output: locked in hot competition with another major Orange County outdoor venue, the 15,000-capacity Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, any such restriction could put the Pacific at a disadvantage in attracting top acts that want to let the decibels fly unfettered.

In a new gambit that amphitheater officials hope will reduce noise outside the amphitheater without attenuating the sound power on which some rock bands and audiences thrive, Papiano said a new sound system is being installed for the 1989 season at a cost of $250,000. The system is designed to focus sound inside the amphitheater instead of projecting it over an earthen barrier and into residential areas. It will involve suspending speakers in an arc above the stage, instead of mounting them in columns on the sides as in the past, Papiano said.

The first big test will come April 8, when the heavy-metal act Poison plays the Pacific, after the April 7 season opener by country band Alabama. Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom has set an April 14 conference with lawyers to review the new system’s performance.


“I don’t know what the system will do,” Papiano said. “We hope it will take care of all problems in all directions.”

In Los Angeles, outdoor concert noise has been a problem, but not an unsolvable one.

In response to neighbors’ noise complaints, the Universal Amphitheatre was converted from an open-air venue to an enclosed theater in 1982. Noise complaints also plagued the Greek Theatre until 1986, when its operator, the Nederlander Organization, agreed to sound restraints that appear to have worked for the city-owned facility.

“The Greek for the past two years has had no complaints by the citizens, none whatsoever,” said Officer Chuck Massar, coordinator of the Los Angeles Police Department’s noise-enforcement team. The key, he said, was installing a “limiter” device on the amphitheater’s sound control board, thereby automatically capping its sound output at levels tolerable on the outside.

Aside from one loud, late-running 1987 show by the rock band U2, the Los Angeles Coliseum has been free from noise complaints in recent years, Massar said. The Hollywood Bowl and the John Anson Ford Theatre also have not generated neighborhood complaints, he said.

However, the Bowl and the Ford Theatre did come into disharmony with one another last year when Philharmonic concert-goers at the Bowl complained that rock bands at the smaller theater across the freeway were drowning out the orchestra.

“We canceled about 10 concerts to suit the Bowl,” said Ward Hassett, assistant manager of the private company that runs the county-owned Ford Theatre. “As it sits right now, we’re not allowed to (have concerts) on the same night as the Hollywood Bowl when the Philharmonic is in session. We’re in negotiations with the Philharmonic and the county, trying to devise some kind of solution” that would allow simultaneous shows at both locations. One possibility, he said, could be the installation of a sound-reducing roof over part of the Ford Theatre.