Sixth Ave. and surrounding area. "We have a problem — it's very serious."
A topic of discussion at Balboa Park Committee's July meeting was that of noise along the western edge of Balboa Park, also known as the West Mesa. Specifically, noise from special events that are causing residents across the street from the park, along Sixth Avenue, to be subjected to 100 decibels of noise.
The city's 81 page guide book on special events doesn't mention decibels or noise buffers.
For context, a normal conversation is around 60 decibels while a rock concert is near 120. The 100 decibels the residents of Sixth Avenue are experiencing is akin to a motorcycle revving its engine while playing a boombox and working a chainsaw.
At the meeting, members of the West Mesa subcommittee discussed the need to establish a noise buffer and decibel limit to give residents some relief. The subcommittee has been working on this issue since forming in 2008, originally called the Balboa Park West Advisory.
In 2009, the subcommittee submitted a report to the city asking them to establish a buffer zone, adopt a city ordinance regarding decibel levels and volume limitations, and to strengthen monitoring and enforcement. The report stated examples of events putting speakers on the sidewalk facing Sixth Avenue residents.
Susan Lowery-Mendoza, Balboa Park special events district manager, said the 2009 report led to park staff working with event organizers and the city to address issues of concern. It was about this time that some event planners were required to appear before the Balboa Park committee as part of the permitting process. Even with this added layer to the process, noise continued to be an issue.
Fast forward to January 2017 when the subcommittee sent a letter to the mayor and city council asking for much the same as since 2009. Specifically, that all sound systems be placed 50 feet back from the curb and that noise levels stay no louder than 70 decibels at the curb. A response from the city finally arrived on July 5 with the gist being: thanks, but no thanks.
The city's letter said the group's requests were "not prescriptive" but rather "guidance that may be supplemental" because it "may not be applicable in all circumstances." The letter had several links, including to the city's special events ordinance which has no mention of buffer zones or decibel levels.
Don Liddell, chair of the West Mesa subcommittee said, "This subcommittee doesn't get a lot of publicity because it operates fairly quietly." He said all events along Sixth Avenue are worthwhile, but impacts to the neighborhood need to be addressed.
Liddell, also a member of the Uptown Planners (Bankers Hill is part of their planning area), brought up the Uptown community plan, adopted in November 2016. He pointed to the noise section of the plan, that discusses special events, as the impetus for January's letter - the next step in the process of implementing the noise policy recommendations in the community plan.
Leo Wilson, chair of the Uptown Planners and a member of the West Mesa subcommittee, lives on Sixth Avenue. "Let me come out and say we have a problem — it's very serious. There are times we're blown away with 100 decibels. For about 10 years, as Don [Liddell] pointed out, we've been working event by event, the problem is that process doesn't work."
Wilson said he doesn't want to unduly interfere with special events because he enjoys them too. He said the West Mesa has at least 500 feet going east, so asking that speakers be 50 feet from the street, to help keep the noise down, seems the least obtrusive remedy.
A couple other members that both live on Sixth at Nutmeg spoke about the noise being unbearable. One of them discussed the city's July 5 claims that no changes need be made to the city's special event planning guide. He disagreed, saying if it isn't in there, people putting on events will have no other way to get the information.
Brian Schoenfisch from the city's planning department thanked the West Mesa subcommittee and Uptown Planners for their work on this issue and said that while the city appreciates their January letter, the city's position is that the noise section of the Uptown community plan is only there to supplement the process already in place - on a case-by-case basis - and "that there's not a need for us to add additional permits and additional process to the lengthy process that's already in place."
Newer committee member James Lawson asked the more seasoned members of the committee if the larger events in the past, as part of the permit review process, had been required to do a 50-foot setback, and if it had been enforced.
All eyes went to Lowery-Mendoza who said, "We have not. We do have as part of the special event process that amplification and speakers have to be pointed east, stages need to be in certain locations, so we do have some of those measures already in place, but not currently a setback."
Committee member Kenneth Davenport asked Schoenfisch, "So what you're saying is that irrespective of what the residents on Sixth Avenue are saying about the current noise situation - in your view, the permit requirements and the rules around events is currently sufficient - in the city's view - even though there is a noise issue obviously that is going on?"
Schoenfisch reiterated the city's position by saying it was better to incorporate any committee recommendations on a case-by-case basis versus changing the entire ordinance or process.
Davenport responded that the committee doesn't get to have input on every event along Sixth Avenue, especially ones that have been going on for a while. "So it's good to hear, but from a practical standpoint, I'm not sure that we have quite the oversight to direct on a case-by-case basis for those events having a 50 foot setback or a 100 foot setback . . . I think there might be a flaw in your working logic here, so you might want to reassess it."
Andrew Kahng asked Schoenfisch about the city's parks and recreation permit rules that already specify a required maximum allowance of 65 decibels at 50 feet. "So the West Mesa subcommittee letter seems to require 50 feet and 70 decibels, which is logarithmically or exponentially more lax than the standard that's in the city document, so what is the problem with - are you saying that their letter is redundant?"
Schoenfisch repeated the city's position but this time added that it was a matter of enforcing the current regulations.
Kahng continued to read from the city's parks and recreation permit rules, "So it says here that events violating this maximum allowance may be turned down or shut off by [San Diego Police Department] or park ranger - I'm gathering that that just doesn't happen?"
Lowery-Mendoza clarified the issue for everyone when she said that for the larger events, a special event permit overrides the parks and recreation permit rules when it comes to noise — meaning they can exceed it.
The next day, Wilson sent me a photo from November 2016 of a Susan Komen event that showed speakers facing Sixth Avenue. Wilson said decibel readings during this event were above 90 in two residences across the street, including his own.
Regarding the city's July 5 letter, Wilson said, "The fact [is] the city is, in effect, repealing a portion of the noise element of its recently approved Uptown community plan by saying they were already addressed by pre-existing policie; [it's] something you would expect in a banana republic."