For nearly seven years, West Des Moines’ Val Air Ballroom and residents of a Des Moines neighborhood a third of a mile away have engaged in a war over noise — a back-and-forth battle that includes calls to police, petitions and showdowns at city council meetings.
The 73-year-old venue has received two citations for violating the city’s sound ordinance since July. A third could lead West Des Moines officials to impose limits on the Val Air’s hours of operation.
Waterbury residents insist they don’t want to shut down the iconic concert hall, which rose to prominence during the big band era in the late 1930s, hosting acts like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. A group of loyal fans and Val Air neighbors has sprung up to counter Waterbury efforts and get the venue exempted from the city’s sound ordinance.
The road to an amicable relationship doesn’t seem any clearer now than in recent years.
“The whole issue seems so blown out of proportion,” Val Air Ballroom manager Chewi Lockhart said. “Is it too noisy? Eight to 12 houses in the Waterbury neighborhood think so, but 183 of our closest neighbors say it’s not that bad.”
One hundred and eighty three: That’s the number, out of the 205 households nearest to the Val Air Ballroom, that signed a petition circulated by the group Friends of the Val Air asking that the ballroom be exempted from any and all sound ordinances. Friends of Val Air founder Edye Beckerman, a West Des Moines resident, and Lockhart took a similar petition around the Waterbury neighborhood. They obtained signatures from 44 of the 73 households they visited. An additional 1,200 people signed an online petition.
“My concern with the Val Air not being exempt is that there will always be an open door of ‘what ifs,’ ” said Beckerman, who lives near Valley Stadium, a noisy venue that is exempt from sound ordinances. “It feels like West Des Moines is giving so much more than a selective few individuals in Waterbury. Chewi is listening to those complaining and has drastically changed the levels. Waterbury hasn’t had to give anything.”
Lockhart said the venue has urged band technicians to set sound levels similar to what they’d use for an outside amphitheater. That resulted in a drop from 120 noise complaints during a three-month period in 2010 to 60 complaints in all of 2011. (Police responded to noise complaints 26 times in 2011, versus 28 in 2010.) West Des Moines Police Lt. James Barrett said the vast majority of complaints came from residents of Des Moines’ Waterbury neighborhood, with “very few” coming from the Val Air’s West Des Moines neighbors. In the last three months, only one complaint, at most, came from a West Des Moines home, Barrett said. Those 60 noise complaints resulted in two citations from the West Des Moines Police Department for violating the city’s sound ordinance — one for a private party in July, and one for a Bassnectar concert in September.
How it works: Once police receive three calls about a single event, they head to the venue to take a reading with a sound level meter from the closest used land — in this case, a group of apartments behind the ballroom. They take a reading during a time in the show when no music is playing (between songs, for example) to mark the ambient noise of the area, then take another reading when the music is playing. If the music level is 10 decibels above the ambient level, the Val Air gets a citation. The first citation in a year brings a $250 fine, the second $750 and third and beyond $1,000. A third citation also gives the city the option of limiting a business’s hours.
Affected Waterbury residents have heard the jabs from Val Air supporters about their complaints to police: “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” or “The Val Air Ballroom has been there for 70 years, why buy a house near a music venue?” But the Waterbury residents doing the complaining say it’s not that simple.
They say noise levels from the Val Air is not the only issue. It’s also the bass that rattles their living rooms. And while the Val Air has been in operation since 1939, many Waterbury residents never felt a thing until the stage was moved to the southwest corner of the building and a new roof and sound system were installed in 2005.
Russ Bitterman is a Waterbury resident, architect and the neighborhood’s liaison to the West Des Moines Sound Committee that helped rewrite West Des Moines’ sound ordinance in 2010. He feels the more powerful sound system and stage move contributed to the problem, as did the venue’s decision to take out the plaster ceiling and replace it with a metal roof.
“The only way to stop bass sound is mass,” Bitterman said. The plaster ceiling helped muffle sound, he said, but the upgrades to the Val Air created what he considers a sound chute, blasting that heavy bass toward a few homes in Waterbury, a few blocks away. The result is a unique situation where he said homes not in the immediate vicinity of the venue feel the reverb, while others just a football field away aren’t feeling much of anything.
Some of Bitterman’s neighbors don’t hear a thing, while he’s added 20 inches of insulation to his attic to no avail. The issue, they say, is being comfortable in their own homes.
The ballroom started as an open-air venue, then received a roof in the 1950s. After a destructive fire in 1962, the Val Air was remodeled and starting hosting rock music acts like Jan & Dean and Roy Orbison. In 2002, the building was put up for sale and owners said the ballroom could be torn down if a buyer didn’t step forward. In 2003, the Detroit-based company Zamora Entertainment purchased the building and started making improvements.
“I don’t think that our neighbors have a higher tolerance; sometimes sound is just fickle,” Bitterman said. “The people who bought the Val Air Ballroom in 2003 (Zamora Entertainment) put some good improvements in and nice amenities. They just didn’t do it all properly. I don’t know how it’s our fault.”
Patti Brown has lived in her home, across the street from Bitterman, for 24 years. Her son worked at the Val Air 10 years ago and she said sound was never an issue. Only in the last half decade or so has her house started shaking.
“No one is asking the Val Air to close,” she said. “We are not aiming to close a business down. A business can operate and still be within the balance of the law. What’s challenging here is that the Val Air helped write this ordinance, and now they’re asking to be exempt.”
Brown said loud concerts occasionally go as late as 1 or 1:30 a.m. “If this was a factory spewing some sort of pollution into the air and some people were saying ‘It doesn’t bother me’ wouldn’t you be frustrated?” she said. “If it’s not an issue for you, it’s a moot problem. But for some of us it’s a real issue.”
Lockhart wants to be a good neighbor, but said price quotes on new sound insulation for the roof run around $300,000 and aren’t guaranteed to muffle low frequency (bass) noise. Even if the money was available, he would be hesitant to spend more than a quarter of million dollars on something that might not solve the problem.
The venue has taken appropriate steps to lower levels and comply with the ordinance, Lockhart said. And being exempt doesn’t mean he would crank up the sound and bass, but it would allow him to do business without fear of a third citation possibly crippling the venue.
“It’s cheap to pick up the phone and complain,” Lockhart said. “On the flip side of the coin, if I was living in a house I didn’t want to leave, I would learn to adapt.
“I think the majority of people are saying it’s not that bad, and there are eight households saying it is that bad. The line is being drawn and the city of West Des Moines is going to have to make some hard decisions.”
West Des Moines City Councilman Kevin Trevilyan said the Val Air Ballroom is of huge financial benefit to the city, pointing out that residents from 48 states saw shows last year, spending money at local restaurants and staying at hotels. He said he finds it difficult to balance that against complaints of a dozen or so households, in another city.
“It seems to me that the city kind of jumps to change based on a small minority of people from Des Moines, rather than letting the existing ordinance run its course,” Trevilyan said. “All of this has been done for a very few people, but it’s an ordinance that impacts the entire city. I don’t know that anything we do will ever appease these people in Waterbury.
“It appears the only thing that would make them happy is for the Val Air to go away. They say that’s not their goal, but to me their actions say different. The city gets zero tax dollars from them and the council was not elected by these people, but we’re expected to jump when they say jump,” Trevilyan said.
West Des Moines Mayor Steven Gaer has dealt with a similar issue before. In the 1990s, some local bars and restaurants hosted music on their patios, and he and the City Council worked to smooth things out with complaining neighbors. He’s hoping things will work out in a similar manner in this instance.
“I don’t think any elected official wants to cause the Val Air not to be able to do business. So how do we find a win-win solution that allows the Val Air to do events and not unfairly disturb residents?” Gaer said. “We’ve tried to set our standards so they’re fairly objective. We’re trying to take the personalities out of this and come up with something reasonable for both sides.”
The next step: A “workshop” following Monday night’s City Council meeting, where the Friends of the Val Air and Waterbury residents will both present their sides of the issue. Then the West Des Moines City Council will decide if the sound ordinance needs to be reevaluated.
West Des Moines sound ordinance workshop
West Des Moines sound ordinance workshop
What it is: Concerned Waterbury residents and the Friends of the Val Air will both present their sides of the contentious issue, before the West Des Moines City Council decides if the current sound ordinance warrants any changes or reevaluation. The workshop begins immediately following the 5:30 p.m. Monday City Council meeting.
Where: West Des Moines City Hall, 4200 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines
About the sound ordinance:
About the sound ordinance:
The city of West Des Moines updated its sound ordinance in July of 2010 to address complaints related to the Val Air Ballroom. If the noise coming from the Val Air (or any building) is more than 10 decibels louder than the ambient sound outdoors (wind, traffic), a citation will be issued. West Des Moines police take the reading from outside the residence closest to the venue, in this case the apartments just west of the Val Air.
The first violation within a 365-day period results in a $250 fine, the second $750 and the third and subsequent citations $1,000. Three citations in a year gives the city the option of limiting the Val Air’s business hours. Police are dispatched to take a reading after receiving complaints from three different homes or businesses about a single event.