LifeAustin Church on Highway 71 in Oak Hill is making full use of its new 1,500-seat amphitheater—to the dismay of some of its neighbors.
by Ann Fowler
OAK HILL – Lawyers continue to battle over a 1,500-seat amphitheater at LifeAustin Church on Highway 71 in Oak Hill. Those representing the neighborhoods of Covered Bridge and Hill Country Estates argue against the purpose of the facility and reported noise complaints. Attorneys representing the church and the city say LifeAustin meets the “religious assembly use” for the amphitheater, and have a sound check report conducted by the city showing no audible sound at a Covered Bridge site, while sound at a site in the Hill Country Estates was well within legal limits.
The fight was taken to the city’s Board of Adjustments (BOA) on Dec. 9, with both sides well represented in the audience. Greg Guernsey, Planning and Development Review Department Director, who approved the amphitheater, said the BOA must find a “reasonable doubt or difference of interpretation” to overturn his decision, and he does not believe one exists.
After the hearing, the BOA opted to postpone a decision until February to allow both sides to come to a compromise.
Some of the complaints from local residents express anger that they were left out of the city’s decision to allow the amphitheater to be built at all. Others say that the volume of the music can be heard at or in their homes.
Pastor Randy Phillips of LifeAustin told the Gazette, “The BOA meeting was insightful and promising. I definitely look forward to meeting with neighbors. The BOA meeting was a clear opportunity for us to find middle ground. This can be a win-win for everyone.”
David VanDelinder, who lives on Midwood Parkway, is a resident concerned about the noise. Despite the checks performed by the city, he said, “The music is terribly disruptive to many families and irritating to others. It can be heard by hundreds of families in four neighborhoods surrounding the church.”
VanDelinder said topography and atmosphere could affect which residents are affected. He said, “We are willing to meet with the church to discuss solutions, as we have always been. I think any noise mitigation solutions at this point will cost the church some money. We will see if they are willing to negotiate in the spirit that the BOA anticipates.”
The neighborhoods’ attorney, Robert Kleeman, said, “The sound impacts are far worse than I ever imagined.”
Yet the closest residents claim noise is not a factor for them. Debra Kretzschmar, who lives on Highway 71, said, “We don’t really hear it—the sound must go over us.”
In a report by the city of a sound check performed on June 4, the unidentified author wrote, “There were rumors going around in the neighborhoods that someone measured a level of 100 decibels in the neighborhood and some of the neighbors were obviously upset at this news. Just by evaluating factual data, this is near impossible to achieve that far away from the venue…. There does not appear to be an impact from the amphitheater in the Covered Bridge neighborhood, no sound was audible during the test.”
Regarding Hill Country Estates, the report said, “…the neighbors immediately to the west of the LifeAustin Church property line can hear music in the area, therefore, is impacted to some extent. Excessive noise is subjective when measured at low levels and what one considers a nuisance another may not, neither is right or wrong. As far as the requirements of state law and city ordinance, the sound levels are significantly lower at the property line than what is allowed.”
The report concludes that the church has taken care in the design and orientation of the structure, as well as its sound mitigation “above and beyond what is required.” But it concludes, “…however, people in parts of the neighborhood are impacted by sound coming into the area. I can only hope the two entities involved can come to an agreement.”
Kleeman also expressed concern about the scope of activities being held in the amphitheater. He said, “Also of concern is the position that LifeAustin took at the Board of Adjustment—all the activities at the outdoor amphitheater constitute a religious assembly use because the events either provide funding to LifeAustin or attract non-members to the grounds, who can then be asked to become members of LifeAustin. In other words, there is no practical limit to what LifeAustin can do outdoors.”
Dennis Broughton, a LifeAustin church member, disagreed with Kleeman’s assessment of what was said at the meeting. “What we did say and the facts are that the amphitheater is used for religious assembly including praise and worship events, consistent with the conditions imposed on the church by the City of Austin,” he said.
Broughton added that the church has initiated discussions with the neighbors in an attempt to address their concerns. Stressed Phillips, “We are serious about finding middle ground.”
Phillips added, “The BOA meeting resulted in an incredible opportunity for LifeAustin and some of our neighbors to find middle ground. BOA Chairman Burchardt issued a challenge to both parties that we take very seriously: ‘The amphitheater is built, it is operational, it is in compliance… find middle ground with the neighbors.’ We have already begun having conversations with community representatives. No doubt we will find a peaceful resolution.”