Howard County Council hears arguments regarding noise from concerts held at Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Andrew Michaels, Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Amid continued concern among some residents over the noise regulations at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion, concert venue general manager Jean Parker and vice president of operations Brad Canfield say sound levels have not changed since the implementation of 2013 state legislation.
Both Merriweather representatives sat before members of the Howard County state delegation and County Council Tuesday night to address ongoing claims that the outdoor venue has violated its current sound regulations, which some residents say has affected their quality of life. Other attendees included Howard County Citizens Association representatives, Howard Hughes and Columbia Association officials as well as members of the police and health departments.
Residents have repeatedly reported hearing Merriweather concerts in and around their homes, particularly following the 2013 legislation that increased allowable levels from 65 to 95 decibels within a quarter-mile radius of the property from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and 55 decibels from 11 to 11:30 p.m.
With Merriweather Post Pavilion's first concert of the season slated for the end of April, Howard Hughes officials are exploring new sound monitoring systems to prevent a repeat of last year's noise level complaints sparked by the 2015 Sweet Life, while continuing construction backstage.
"People will be living within a quarter of a mile of Merriweather within the future," Canfield said. "Development has started in Town Center. The 95-decibel level was solely done for future people who are moving into that quarter-of-a-mile-of-Merriweather zone in the coming years."
Canfield said the 72.5-decibel level maximum for outside the quarter-mile radius was established by state code.
"That is the volume that your neighbor's air conditioning or heat pump can make," Canfield said. "That number wasn't picked out. We were obviously looking for a higher number and that's what the state came back with."
Merriweather has created its fair share of discussions regarding the emanating sound levels in Columbia, Parker and Canfield said, two of which were triggered by two separate performances in the '80s and '90s. The latest complaints began after the 2015 Sweetlife Festival. During the roundtable meeting Tuesday, Howard Police Chief Gary Gardner said police officers living in Ellicott City also reported hearing the bass around 10 p.m. during the Sweetlife Festival, coinciding with D.J. Calvin Harris' main stage performance.
"That's what started people thinking about Merriweather volume again," he said. "It had nothing to do with the sound legislation. We were fined. We try our hardest never to let that happen again. It made us sick that that happened, that we inconvenienced people. We apologized profusely for that happening."
Sound levels emanating from Merriweather Post Pavilion have the Howard County Citizens Association continuing to fight for tighter decibel regulations as the venue rolls out its new sound monitoring system throughout Columbia to address the problem.
Despite the three recorded violation incidents, Canfield said Merriweather has had more than 2,000 shows since its opening in 1967, staying within regulations "99.85 percent of the time."
The 2013 legislation was needed to codify Merriweather's operation, Parker said, but does not allow for louder performances. With rules and regulations in place, the general manager said tighter restrictions would simply be detrimental to the concert venue.
"Nobody in this room is asking the [Columbia] mall to close during the holiday season because the traffic is a nuisance to some people," Parker said. "Restricting Merriweather is doing just that. It's trying to regulate the art of these artists, who have artistic control over what they do. Further regulation will lose those artists' businesses to nearby Virginia and other states."
With other venues nearby, such as Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va. and Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore, Merriweather remains in a competitive market, Parker said.
However, the venue's benefits to the county have been instrumental in the area's growth, he said, contributing more than $13.1 million to the local economy and providing 1,110 jobs each season.
Bert Nixon, director of the county Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Health Services, said the department has two staff members who measure decibel levels at various shows throughout the season, and that the number of noise complaints varies. Nixon said Health and Police Department officials continually monitor sound levels to make sure the venue is within regulation.
Among those at the hearing, feelings were not mutual on the current sound regulations.
Columbia resident Becky Dickerson, who lives along Beaverbrook Road, said the noise levels have invaded her home, yard and health.
"I've been here for 40 years and I knew James Rouse," Dickerson said. "I knew his vision for the city and I knew Merriweather when I used to go to many of the concerts and enjoyed it. His vision was so clear about what he wanted and invading people's homes was not one of them."
Joan Lancos disagreed. A Columbia resident and the Hickory Ridge Village Board's land use liaison, Lancos said Merriweather has always been and continues to be a good neighbor to residents. Although she has occasionally recognized the sound as overwhelming, the 35-year Columbia resident said it isn't a nuisance.
"Merriweather is a part of the fabric of this community," she said. "When you can hear the music of Merriweather, you're hearing the heartbeat of Columbia. Hearing it is not the same as being disturbed by it. The bottom line is that [the sound] goes away."
Canfield, the Merriweather operations vice president, concluded his statements at Tuesday's meeting by saying that Merriweather will continue its efforts to address complaints and minimize the sound levels with advancements in technology.
"We are working on technology that will limit the sound [and] we are working on a new monitoring system," Canfield said. "It's going to take us more than a year, more than two years to figure this stuff out so that where we can place these things [where they] are not going to constantly get false readings from things other than Merriweather."