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Noise level causes debate

The Baltimore Sun

As the sky turned various shades of evening orange, the members of Liberty High School's marching band stood in a half-circle on a side parking lot off Bartholow Road in Eldersburg, warming up.

The group, which consists of nearly 30 musicians, a color guard and drum major, was consumed with preparation for the 25th Annual Marching Band Extravaganza they were scheduled to host and perform in yesterday.

But a conflict over the bands' rehearsals -- and specifically, the high sound level of their Tuesday and Thursday practices from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. -- has cast a shadow over their usual routine.

The rehearsals have become a point of contention after a nearby resident raised concerns about their volume.

The county's environmental compliance officer, James Slater, visited the school last week to determine options for reducing the sound, said Vivian Laxton, county spokeswoman.

The school has tried to respond by having the band play away from the building and toward trees near the lot, so the sound won't bounce off the exterior walls, said Brandi Jason, Liberty's instrumental music director. She also has sought to end rehearsal promptly at 9 p.m.

"We're not here to pester anyone," Jason said.

Still, "we've got a band that is high-performing, and it takes a lot of hours ... to be able to compete at the level at which they compete," said Dwayne Piper, the school's principal.

To Scott Friedly, whose family moved into their home two years ago, the rehearsals always seemed loud, but the volume became more of an issue after their new son, who was recovering from medical complications shortly after his birth last September, would regularly wake up during the practice sessions.

Using one of the decibel meters available to the public at the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, Friedly measured the sound levels as the group rehearsed, which reached 65 and 75 decibels, he said. He then asked for a formal reading, spokesman Lt. Phil Kasten said. A deputy later measured the decibel levels on Aug. 28, Kasten said.

"This wasn't any plot of attack," Friedly said. "All I wanted to do was sit down with Principal Piper and Superintendent [Charles I.] Ecker with accurate facts to talk about any possible ideas we could come up with."

While the readings were, on average, below the 65-decibel limit specified in the county's noise ordinance, "several readings peaked above," Kasten said.

The ordinance makes exceptions for sport and entertainment events, and "other public gatherings operating in accordance with properly issued permits or licenses."

The sheriff's office forwarded the readings to the county attorney's office, Kasten said, but no citations were issued, nor was anyone charged.

"We are working with the folks at the school to try to come up with a solution," Laxton said.

Changing where the band rehearses presents some difficulty, Piper said. The school's facilities are used by sports teams and the community, and traffic in a parking lot on the other side of the building makes moving there problematic.

"In order for there to be a viable solution, there has to be a location that's not going to be conflicting with other teams that practice on our property," Piper said.

The situation appears unique for the level to which it has risen.

"We get complaints from time to time," Ecker said. "It's never gone this far."

Mark Lortz, Westminster High's marching band director, said he has often dealt with neighborhood concerns about band music volume during his dozen or so years at that school.

Recently, he added, residents in an apartment complex across from the building came by to ask -- politely -- how long marching season, with evening rehearsals like Liberty's, would last.

To accommodate neighbors, Lortz said, the band's nearly 70 instrumental students play facing away from homes, and the group stays within its rehearsal time.

"While they can still hear it, we're not blowing into their faces," Lortz said. "We don't have anywhere else to go."

Beyond the immediate sound problem awaiting a solution, Jason, Piper and Liberty parents such as Jim Mullen also said they worry for their students, who work hard to achieve and maintain their competitiveness.

"When we're faced with anything that could compromise their practice time, they really get devastated, and they take it to heart," Jason said.

Mullen, the president of the Instrumental Music Boosters, has a sophomore who plays trumpet.

"These kids want to be competitive, and they want to be good at their instruments ... To be good at your instrument, you need to play it," he said.

Mullen added that he fears more people could use the ordinance as grounds to complain to Liberty and other county schools.

"This is nothing small at all because most of the schools are situated within neighborhoods," Mullen said. "This is a countywide school problem now."

Whatever happens, Jason hopes "it's going to be healthy for my program ... and not destructive," she said. "I have good kids doing a good thing here."

Friedly said he wasn't trying to impede the students, but to make things better for his children.

"I don't view band in general as bad," Friedly said. "I don't view it as noise ... I'm not here to be someone who wants to stop anything that's positive for children."

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