Proposed state legislation that would prevent Howard County from putting noise restrictions at Merriweather Post Pavilion drew mixed reaction during public testimony Dec. 19 before the Howard County Delegation.
The bill, requested by Merriweather, would prevent Howard County or any local government subsidiary from banning the electronic amplification of sound between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. at an outdoor concert venue with a capacity of more than 15,000 individuals.
Merriweather, built in 1967, is the only such venue in the county.
The county's current noise ordinance requires the decibel level at surrounding residential properties to drop from a maximum of 65 during the day to 55 at 10 p.m. The proposed bill would extend the decibel level of 65 to 11 p.m.
Merriweather General Manager Jean Parker said the venue has not been in violation of sound ordinances over the past 10 years and is only seeking to update the county code to reflect how Merriweather has operated for years.
"When examining the sound restrictions it is apparent the current code is simply not practical for outdoor venues," Parker said at the hearing. "It should reflect how a venue operates instead of saddling the county with unrealistic monitoring and enforcement."
But for every speaker who testified in favor of the bill, there was a resident who opposed the proposed legislation.
Residents opposed to the bill said the music at Merriweather is already too loud, noise ordinances are not being enforced and they are concerned that state legislators may be overstepping their bounds by creating a county noise ordinance.
Some residents testified that their windows and doors have shook during a Merriweather concert, even though their homes are a mile away.
Those in favor of the bill said they knew about possible noise issues when moving to the area, and that the concert venue is an important Columbia icon.
Ian Kennedy, a Columbia resident and co-founder of Save Merriweather, an advocacy group formed in 2003 to prevent development on Merriweather property, said the noise ordinance as it is currently written is "too tight" for the concert venue.
"I know there are concerns about the long-term impact of a noise ordinance that won't allow it to operate as it currently does," he said.
Linda Wengel, vice chairwoman of the Town Center village board, called the proposed bill "unacceptable," and asked the delegation to reject the legislation.
"Our board values the economic and entertainment Merriweather provides and we certainly want Merriweather to prosper, but public policy must find a balance between economic benefits and quality of life issues," Wengel said.
County noise regulations currently mirror the state code, according to council member Mary Kay Sigaty, who testified at the hearing.
Sigaty said she was not testifying against or in favor of the bill, but instead wanted to clarify current county law.
While the county council cannot adopt legislation that allows Merriweather to be louder or run concerts longer than they can now, Sigaty said the county could pass legislation that limits Merriweather's house and sound levels.
Sigaty said, when asked by Del. Liz Bobo, she is concerned of a precedent being set with the state implementing a law limiting the powers of the County Council.
"As a local elected, no, I really don't like having a law that says I can not help my local constituents," Sigaty said.
Howard County Director of Communications David Nitkin said County Executive Ken Ulman is a "strong supporter of Merriweather Post Pavilion and supports the noise ordinance legislation as being in the best interests of the facility."