I located one of the people (he wishes to remain anonymous) who complained to Code Compliance in 2004. He told me he lived for six “miserable years” on the other side of Broadway from the Chapel of Happiness. He complained numerous times and, on one occasion, went onto the chapel’s parking lot. There, he says, a group of church members surrounded him, demanding he give them a satisfactory reason for his presence before letting him go. People in the neighborhood were always calling the police and Code Compliance, he told me, but the chapel had a system of sentries who stood out on Broadway looking for trouble. If City officials came into the neighborhood, the noise turned low.
By now, the Alvarezes were soliciting the help of Ben Hueso, their District Eight city councilman and council president. Hueso expressed his sympathy, saying that he had endured a loud Pentecostal church in his neighborhood and that its noise was awful. He said he knew the leaders at the Chapel of Happiness and would ask them to reduce the noise. Whatever he told them, say the Alvarezes, noise levels remained the same.
Eventually, the issue ended up in arbitration. Mike Littlefield, a dispute resolution officer in the city attorney’s office, held three meetings between the parties. The Alvarezes and another resident of their building met with three Spanish-speaking pastors and Abram Rodriguez, who lives on the Chapel of Happiness property.
During one meeting held in the chapel, according to Ruchell Alvarez, Rodriguez “jumped up at the sound of a jetliner passing over nearby and asked, ‘Do you call the police on that?’ ” (Rodriguez has not returned my calls seeking his version of events.) In the end, the meetings proved useless, as the City’s Mike Littlefield did not even recommend a solution.
On September 10, Robert Vacchi of Code Compliance wrote to Richard and Ruchell Alvarez that “we will no longer investigate noise issues for [the Chapel of Happiness] site.” “The decision has a ring of finality about it,” says Ruchell Alvarez, who wonders whether the City is intimidated by potential freedom of religious expression lawsuits. “What about the rights of local residents?” she asks.
The nuisance at the Chapel of Happiness does seem to violate standards of all nine criteria for deciding noise regulation issues. These include duration of the noise, proximity of the noise to sleeping facilities, whether the nature of the noise is usual or unusual, and the level of the noise. Regarding the last criterion, Alvarez is especially frustrated. She says Neighborhood Code Compliance has refused to bring a decibel meter into her building to measure noise levels during the Chapel of Happiness services. “We have given a standing invitation to any City employees to come to our home and listen for themselves,” she says.
Richard Alvarez offered to purchase his own decibel meter and show its readings to the appropriate officials. But Neighborhood Code Compliance says only its official decibel meter can be used. Yet the office will not use it in the La Collinda Condominiums.
Six weeks ago, I walked the alley behind the Chapel of Happiness during one of its evening services. I had no decibel reader but became convinced immediately that the noise I heard coming from the chapel would violate laws anywhere. Later, Richard Alvarez played for me a number of tape recordings he had taken of other such services throughout his residence at the La Collinda Condominiums. The recordings sounded much like what I had heard in the alley.
“In the arbitration hearing,” Alvarez tells me, “Abram Rodriguez refused to listen to tapes of the noise his organization is responsible for. He argued that I have doctored the tapes to make them louder, that I turned up the volume while taping. Well, tape recorders do not record louder or softer. You can turn the volume up, yes, but only during the playback. And you can see here,” he says, holding the recorder close to me as he raises and lowers the volume, “that I’m playing this at a normal level.”
To further his case, Alvarez fast-forwards the tape to several intervals in which he is heard making remarks about a Padres game and speaking to his daughter. His voice is not loud. But as soon as the church music on the tape starts, we can barely hear each other talk.
Last spring and throughout the summer, the Alvarezes did not realize — nor did any City official inform them — that they may have had another recourse to getting City help. The city attorney’s office offers both a Code Enforcement Unit and a Neighborhood Prosecution Unit (there is a prosecutor who works with the police department in each of the four major divisions of the city: northern, western, central, and mid-city).
On January 27, in connection with an old Linda Vista loading site filled with festering water, newly elected City Attorney Jan Goldsmith had this to say: “We’ve raised code enforcement to a top priority.… We have a problem with Code Compliance generally. We need more officers and more training for them.… We will make sure we have prosecutors who know what they’re doing and they’re adequately funded.”
Goldsmith’s statement may have something to do with the phone call a police officer made to Richard Alvarez three weeks ago. The officer wanted Alvarez to know that he had just issued a noise citation to the leader of a choir and band practicing at the Chapel of Happiness. Alvarez had not even called the police.
The citation, which Alvarez learned carried the threat of a fine up to $500 for repeat violations, gave him hope. His optimism was shattered last week, however, when graffiti turned up in his condo complex. It started in the stairwell on the third floor, led along an inside wall, and finished ten feet from his door. The message inside the stairwell? “Help me please. I don’t want to die in here.”
Nevertheless, reports Alvarez, noise at the Chapel of Happiness has decreased markedly in the past two weeks. “It’s been quiet as a mouse,” he says.