The San Diego planning catchword “infill” might sound nice in quiet hilltop homes. But daily life in the closer quarters below usually means ever noisier conditions. In the interest of more livable neighborhoods, those who make the noise might volunteer to be quieter. The jury is out, however, on the Mission Valley YMCA. The nonprofit is being accused by its neighbors of being a bad neighbor.
The YMCA came to Friars Road in the western end of Mission Valley in 1980. In that same year, a huge condominium complex called Presidio Place went up next door to the east. At first, the Y’s facilities were concentrated on the western side of its property. Since then, the Y has expanded incrementally, and some of its activities now abut the condominiums. The nearest condo owners have been complaining bitterly to the Y’s management that a new level of noise, not noticeable in the earlier years, has made their lives miserable. And they believe the Y is doing its best to ignore the problem.
The noise started to increase after a 2003 conditional-use permit by the City allowed the Y to move a small soccer field. The field, first located on the northeast corner of the Y’s property, was moved a little south to make room for a new parking lot. Katherine Whitley, who lives on Presidio Place’s third floor, remembers that, although the original soccer games took place close to Presidio Place, they caused few problems. The main reason, she thinks, was that the lack of adjacent parking kept the number of contests and players to a minimum. It also meant that few spectators and fans of the teams came to the games. But even in 1999, there were occasional problems. One Sunday afternoon, Whitley was entertaining guests in her home. “I had a lot of tall plants on my balcony,” she tells me by phone, “so that I wouldn’t have to look down on the games. But the plants didn’t stop a soccer ball from coming through my open window and into the midst of my guests.” The flying ball destroyed some of the outdoor plants, and Whitley says that the Y was good enough to reimburse her for the damage.
Meanwhile, soccer was becoming ever more popular. By 2008, noise from the games was driving the condo owners crazy. At the start of this year, Whitley and some of her neighbors on the west side of Presidio Place decided to take the problem into small-claims court. There were residents, including Whitley, who had installed specially designed windows to curb the noise. A few of the installations had cost as much as $5000. It turned out, however, that the windows did little to soften the raucous sounds of the games, many of which were played until 11 o’clock on weekday nights.
In small-claims court, Whitley and five participating neighbors each asked for $7500 in damages from the Y, the maximum that can be awarded. The judge refused to award the damages. But there were other concessions that the neighbors sought. They did manage to obtain a court order that the Y take measures to reduce some of the soccer-game noise.
By phone, I speak with Dick Webster, the Mission Valley YMCA’s executive director. He tells me that to cooperate with the court, the Y ended all Sunday soccer games. It now ends Wednesday night games, he says, at 9:00 p.m. instead of the previous 11:00 p.m. And the Friars Road parking lot now opens at 6:00 a.m. instead of 4:30 a.m. and closes at 11:00 p.m. “We’ve done our very best to work with neighbors and accommodate their concerns,” says Webster.
But “they’ve only followed through on stopping the Sunday games,” says Whitley. She and her neighbors are especially angry that the Y still does not control its parking lot, as people shout while loitering and drivers squeal in and out until the wee hours of the night. Wednesday night games, say the neighbors, still go well past 9:00 p.m.
Now a new contingent of neighbors, led by attorney Robert Hyde, plans to take the problem to superior court. Hyde says he resisted getting involved in the first legal action because small-claims court does not have the authority to issue the Y an injunction to stop the excessive noise. The lawsuit in superior court will ask for just such an order.
I am sitting on a quiet early Saturday morning with Stuart MacKenzie in his first-floor condominium on Presidio Place’s west side. Robert Hyde, who lives immediately above MacKenzie on the second floor, sits with us. The outdoor soccer field is now within 20 feet of their back windows. Just as close is an expanded playground for small children. “Don’t let the lack of noise fool you,” MacKenzie tells me. “In a few hours, there will be a din back there. I brought the noise problem here to the attention of Sandra Teasley from the City’s planning department. I was probably very insistent. So what she said to me was, ‘Stuart, take ten deep breaths and a Valium.’ Well, that might help for a moment, but it’s not going to stop all the noise we have here.”
MacKenzie also claims Teasley gave him a curious interpretation of the conditional-use permit. He says he showed her a line in the permit that reads, “All uses except storage and loading shall be conducted entirely within an enclosed building.” According to MacKenzie, Teasley told him, “An attorney would interpret it that way. But that’s not what it means.” When I emailed Teasley for further comment on the sentence, she wrote back, “The existing outdoor soccer field is not subject to that provision.” Of course, what MacKenzie would prefer having next to his bedroom is something more akin to the La Mesa Indoor Soccer Facility. It has a full bubble enclosure over it.
Hyde sums up the YMCA nuisance. Much of it “is a lot of yelling, a lot of whistle-blowing and clapping,” he says. “They have a sign over there that encourages people to make noise, one that says clap and cheer for your team. I’m talking about stuff that wakes you up.” Besides the relocated field, bleachers have now been added.
The loudest sound, according to Hyde, comes from the soccer balls striking fiberglass walls that enclose the field. “That literally sounds like a bass drum over and over again, every time the ball hits the walls,” he says. “Those balls hit really thin fiberglass panels, which are like the top of a drum. It resonates through the whole neighborhood.
“And there is screaming of profanities. Soccer is a sport, after all, and being here is like living next to a sports stadium.” Hyde says it is also not unusual for players to leave the field and urinate in the fire lane that’s between the condo building and the Y’s property. “There are children running around out there.” The fire lane is often blocked with vehicles as well, according to Hyde.
“And they’ve had live rock bands over there,” he says, “with electric guitars and amplifiers, where they’ve played until midnight.” For both the music and the soccer, “They use high-intensity lights that shine into our property.
“All this activity started off slowly but has escalated to the point now where it’s gotten out of hand. It’s unreasonable. What’s frustrating is the inability of the Y to see our point of view and do something about it. The impact on us is not only things like being unable to have our windows open under any circumstances, but it causes air-conditioning bills to go way up because we can’t have any cross-ventilation. We can’t get quiet enjoyment of our property.”
When Hyde, MacKenzie, and several of their neighbors go to superior court at the end of October, they will have a section of the California Health and Safety Code to back them up. In part, the code reads as follows: “Excessive noise is a serious hazard to the public health and welfare. Exposure to certain levels of noise can result in physiological, psychological, and economic damage.… All Californians are entitled to a peaceful and quiet environment without the intrusion of noise which may be hazardous to their health or welfare.”
Money, more than any health factor, may eventually win the day. Gary Jimenez, one of the litigants, doesn’t live at Presidio Place anymore. He rents out his condo on the building’s west side. Jimenez tells me that to entice renters he had to install the specially designed windows that supposedly muffle noise. The tenants complained after the windows did little. They argued they could break their lease unless Jimenez lowered their rent. Jimenez tells me that at one time he had been able to command $1650 to rent out his condo. Now he’s down to $1150.
Stuart MacKenzie believes that neither the City nor the Y cares about the nuisance to neighborhood residents. And he argues that stealth was used. He shows me a July 2003 “Notice of Public Hearing” that the City circulated before drawing up the Y’s conditional-use permit later that fall. The notice states that changes at the Y will include removing a tennis court and an “in-line” hockey rink. No mention is made that “an outdoor soccer field” would be moved into their place. That language wouldn’t turn up until October 21, 2003, the date the city council passed the conditional-use permit.