Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sound Restrictions Imposed on Red Rocks Amphitheater Spark Controversy

February 19, 2015

Red Rocks Amphitheater is an iconic outdoor music venue located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 10 miles west of Denver in Morrison, Colorado. The amphitheater is owned and operated by the City and County of Denver. Public, organizational and private performances have been held at Red Rocks for more than 100 years. In recent years, residents of Morrison have complained of increasing noise levels during concerts at the venue, with a particular distaste for reverberations caused by loud bass, or deep, low-pitched sounds. The residents argue that electronic dance music (EDM) concerts are the primary events producing loud bass, and that these shows, among others, prevent the residence from fully enjoying their property near the venue.  In response to these concerns the city of Denver, for the first time, implemented noise regulations for the 2014 concert season, and noise-monitoring systems were also installed at the venue.

At the onset of the 2014 concert season, the city of Denver installed at Red Rocks a noise monitoring system at the Front-of-House, or on stage, to measure the decibel level reached during performances. The 2014 regulations imposed a maximum noise level of 105 dB, measured at 1-minute intervals. Five consecutive or non-consecutive minutes that exceeded this level constituted a $10,000 violation.  However, these limits only applied after 12:00am on weeknights, and after 1:00am on weekends, with concerts ending no later than 30 minutes after these curfew times. The 2014 season had no violations of these regulations due to the fact that the majority of the shows ended well before the 30-minute curfew period where the noise limits applied.

Morrison residents were not satisfied with the 2014 regulations, arguing that noise levels remained obnoxiously high.  In December of 2014, the City of Morrison sent a letter to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and top Red Rocks officials seeking the implementation of recommendations contained in a report made by Geiler and Associates, LLC., consultants in acoustics and presentation technologies hired by the City.  The report (the “Geiler Report”) made a number of conclusions regarding the 2014 concert season, data collected by Red Rocks and other sources during that year, and proposed regulations for 2015.

The Geiler Report apparently persuaded the City of Denver, as the new regulations for 2015 mirror the recommendations found in the Report. Denver presented these new regulations to Morrison residents on January 7, 2015.[1] Two notable changes appear in the 2015 regulations: first, sound levels are now applicable to the entire performance (prior to 11:15pm, sound pressure level shall not exceed 108dB; after 11:15pm, sound level shall not exceed 105dB); second, mandatory ending times have been moved 45 minutes earlier for weeknight shows, and one hour earlier for weekend shows (11:45pm on weeknights; 12:30am on Friday nights, Saturday nights and some holidays). In addition, three violations of sound limits (instead of five as seen in 2014) warrant a $10,000 fine, a performer that incurs a violation will not be permitted to perform at Red Rocks the following year, and these regulations now appear in each performance contract executed between artists and the City of Denver.

The implementation of the 2015 noise regulations presents a number of issues to be considered. For concert-goers, likely one of the first questions asked is “how can Denver implement these regulations?” The answer to this question is simple: the City and County of Denver owns and operates Red Rocks, and, by way of private contracts with artists to rent the amphitheater, Denver has complete authority to control the manner in which artists conduct themselves while performing. Therefore, to the dismay of many Red Rocks fans, the City of Denver is acting well within its authority by implementing these regulations through private contracts with artists who perform at the venue. As long as the artists consent to the regulations by signing the contract, the regulations are in full force.

Another issue is the possibility that the city of Morrison may seek to impose regulations on Red Rocks beyond those already in place. Implementation of additional regulation would likely occur through city or county ordinances.  In its letter to Denver’s Mayor and Red Rocks officials, the City of Morrison claimed that it would “consider other enforcement options” if Denver failed to work with Morrison in reaching a long-term solution. Currently, Red Rocks is exempt from the Jefferson County (the county in which Morrison is located) noise abatement law, resolution CC07-202. This resolution prohibits excessive sound levels, with an exception that applies to the “use of property by this state… for the purpose of promoting, producing, or holding cultural, entertainment, athletic, or patriotic events, including, but not limited to, concerts, music festivals, and fireworks displays.” Based on this exception applicable to Red Rocks, it appears that Morrison may find it difficult to regulate noise levels by way of city or county ordinance.

At the heart of this controversy lie those Morrison residents who have complained about the excessive noise produced by concerts at Red Rocks. If these residents remain unsatisfied, one of their few options is to pursue a claim of public or private nuisance against Red Rocks and the City of Denver. Unfortunately for those residents, it is likely that both claims will fail.

Because of the century-long existence of Red Rocks, private nuisance claims (i.e. a single claim brought by an individual seeking relief for an alleged nuisance) against Red Rocks (or the City of Denver) will likely fail because the vast majority of residence who might bring this claim chose to buy property near the venue, thereby drastically reducing the likelihood that a court would rule in their favor. Ken Kubik, the creator of a petition advocating the removal of sound restrictions at Red Rocks, commented on this issue in a January 2015 interview, stating that “all [of the homes] have been built after the construction of the Amphitheater, and thus the homeowners should not be able to complain about the volume of the concerts as they willingly purchased property near a well known and active musical venue.”[2]

A public nuisance claim alleging that the residents of Morrison, as a whole, are unjustifiably subjected to the annoyance of Red Rocks will likely also fail when considering how many more members of the public benefit and enjoy Red Rocks, in comparison to the relatively few Morrison residents who do not. The utility of the amphitheater as a venue for performances far outweighs the gravity of harm felt by Morrison citizens as a result of those performances, thus resulting in an unsuccessful public nuisance claim.

Many avid live music fans and supporters of Red Rocks feel as if the concert-going experience will be diminished as a result of these noise regulations. EMD fans feel as if they’re musical genre, favorite artists, and Red Rocks experiences are under attack. “This is an important issue as the noise restrictions placed on Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater are detrimental to the music experience of any event patron at the venue,” Kubik suggests. He continued, arguing that the “noise restrictions also unfairly target Electronic Dance Music Events, as these events tend to have large amounts of low frequency bass sounds that travel further than higher frequency sounds, thus being more present in the homes near the venue.”

Luckily for EDM fans, Brian Kitts from Denver Arts & Venues is on their side. In a January 8, 2015 interview, Kitts said that Denver will continue to work with Morrison residents regarding noise issues, but that the City has no intention of restricting the genre of music performed at Red Rocks. "We want the artists to be cognizant that this is not an indoor venue," Kitts said. "But we are not considering banning EDM or other shows. They are an important part of American pop culture right now."[3]

There is another, more important perk that concertgoers should keep in mind. It is likely that the majority of fans attending shows at Red Rocks will not even notice the difference in sound as a result of the new regulations. “There is a misconception that… the sound levels are going to be 50% of what they were last year, and that’s just not the case,” Kitts said in a February 2015 interview.[4] “What you’re doing is shaving off certain high points of the show, to the point that you aren’t going to notice.” Kitts went on, “my gut tells me that 99% of the fans aren’t going to notice.”

Although the concerns of Morrison residents and Red Rocks fans are important, the overriding interest for Denver, Red Rocks, and performers is making money. Skeptics of the new regulations argued that they would inhibit the venue’s ability to attract artists, especially EDM performers. However, this has not been the case for the 2015 concert season. “This will be the heaviest season for EDM music that Red Rocks has ever had,” says Kitts. “So clearly, the regulations aren't restricting them, they believe they can put on an effective show.” 

The upcoming 2015 concert season will shed light on the extent to which these new regulations affect concert experiences at Red Rocks, and the level of satisfaction felt by Morrison residents. However, 2015 is only one step in the process of finding a long-term, satisfactory compromise. Considering the contentious nature of this issue, it’s fair to say that noise regulation at Red Rocks will be a debated issue for years to come.  

Max Montag, Staff Editor 

[1] the denver post,
[2] westward,
[3] colorado public radio,
[4] westward,

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