Right: Promiseland West Executive Pastor Michael Heflin. Left: Part of the crowd at OHAN meeting on PromiseLand West.
By Ann Fowler
Nearly 100 people attended the January meeting of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) to see a presentation given by Promiseland West representatives about the Dream City project on Highway 71.
The plan for the development, currently under construction, is phased to include a multi-purpose worship and classroom building, chapel, playground, ball fields, parsonage and amphitheater. It is the amphitheater that has caused angst and anger for some of the neighbors closest to the project.
Pastor Randy Phillips first presented the project to OHAN in 2007. Representatives of local neighborhoods met with the church and were adamant about one thing: no amphitheater. Residents were concerned about the noise that such a facility might bring. But the city granted the church a restrictive covenant that allowed the amphitheater as long as no commercial for-profit events are held.
A restrictive covenant is included in a real estate deed to limit what the landowner can do with the property. The terms of the covenant can be enforced in a court of law.
About half of the audience at the January 11 OHAN meeting, including Austin City Councilmember Bill Spelman, came to hear specifics on the church’s plans. Others came to express anger and disappointment that the development was going forward with the amphitheater, which will have 750 fixed seats and 250 portable seats.
One woman complained about the sound of the construction equipment: “It’s very disturbing.”
A man complained, “We are going to have to listen to religious music that we don’t want to listen to,” adding, ” We are not happy that this is going in our backyard.”
Promiseland West Executive Pastor Michael Heflin gave a slide presentation showing current and future plans, and explaining how the church would deal with sound and traffic issues. Attorney Steve Metcalfe (Metcalfe Wolf Steward and Williams), sound engineer Ryan Knox and traffic expert Kathy Hornaday Smith (HDR/WHM) addressed various facets of the project.
Asked what an amphitheater has to do with a church, Heflin replied, “We believe that we have an opportunity to reach people that will never ever come to a church, but through the use of the amphitheater and the arts at the amphitheater, that we’ll be able to reach them. That’s why we’re doing it.”
Some local residents fear the amphitheater will turn into a venue for nightly rock concerts. Phillips is a member of the Christian music super group, Phillips, Craig & Dean, leading some to believe the trio may hold concerts in Oak Hill. That scenario seems unlikely as the restrictive covenants bars for-profit events. Still, some neighbors worry.
Local resident Daloma Armentrout said after attending the OHAN meeting, “We’re told to trust that their amplified sound levels will be ‘better than code,’ but the sound levels quoted by the sound engineer — 75 dB — for ‘at property line’ are at the maximum of code. And their lawyer denied that code and sound permits actually apply to them anyway. We were promised sound studies, but haven’t received them. They have no plans to control crowd noise, and dodged answers about bass pounding and high frequency noise.”
Heflin and Knox said the sound studies had not been completed, but promised copies to interested parties once they are. Hanrahan addressed the question of bass during the meeting, saying bass sounds can be controlled: “That will be a big point in the system design and analysis, is recommending ways to control that.”
Heflin said a monitoring system would allow sound engineers to make adjustments during any amphitheater event to ensure that sound stays within acceptable levels. One of the sound studies conducted by the church resulted in a change in the amphitheater placement. Heflin said they had considered positioning the amphitheater so that the sound would be directed toward Highway 71, “but the topography doesn’t work” because of the downhill slope, he told the group.
Asked if the church felt it needed a permit for an outdoor music venue, Metcalfe replied, “We would interpret the outdoor music venue permit ordinance of Austin to apply to commercial venues. We’re not commercial.”
Smith said that the activities at the church would often occur at non-peak traffic times. Heflin said the parking lot has a 400-vehicle capacity. A park and ride will be considered if more parking is needed. He said the church would conduct another traffic study 12 months after occupancy. Smith said a follow-up study is not typically done.
Heflin said the church currently hires more traffic control personnel than is required for its Sunday gathering at Westlake High School. He said they would do the same with any events for Dream City.
The OHAN agenda represented the Dream City segment as a presentation to explain the development, but some hoped for some type of negotiation at the meeting.
After the meeting, OHAN board member Laura Falk told the Gazette, “In my opinion there was a lot of information given we already knew. I felt the church was vague on the issues Oak Hill citizens wanted answers to. There were basically no concessions given to the Oak Hill community; the church walked away with the same plans they walked in with.”
Sandy Baldridge, OHAN secretary, said after the meeting, “I wish every OHAN meeting could grab as much attention of local residents as did last week’s meeting. OHAN was glad to open its agenda to include the first truly public exchange of ideas and thoughts, points and counterpoints from both sides of the Promiseland West amphitheater discussion. I believe the residents of Covered Bridge and Hill Country Estates and other neighboring communities were able to express their concerns.”
Those against the project were vocal. Those who supported it — or were neutral but seeking information — said later that they felt intimated so didn’t speak up in the emotion-charged room. Some said it was hard to hear as some residents talked to one another during the presentation.
One said, “I’ve accepted that you can’t stop progress, so in that sense I support it. I’ve attended planning meetings where others have stated they don’t want the area to change or be developed, that they like the open fields. They forget that they’re living on what was once open fields … I’ve heard many positive things about Promiseland West. I realize it will mean more traffic, and I’m not looking forward to that, but I’m willing to give them a chance.”
After the meeting several people met with Heflin to continue discussions in a calmer environment. Heflin told the Gazette: “Folks with experience say those meetings typically go as ours did last night. Hopefully everyone listened to each other. I had several great follow up conversations after the meeting with neighbors. I have also received invitations to meet with some Homeowner Associations and individuals. A small group meeting is the environment where relationships can be truly developed. We are looking forward to those follow-ups.”