We live in what used to be a quiet, tree-laden, residential area of Belmont, California. The City’s website boasts: “Its small-town ambience sets it apart as a tranquil, safe and desirable place to live.”
Belmont is home to what used to be called the College of Notre Dame (in recent years changed to University of Notre Dame de Namur, or NDNU). The college was a girls’ school with a campus as quiet and tree-laden as the neighborhood itself. The main thoroughfare of Ralston Avenue runs through the heart of Belmont and across the front of the Notre Dame campus. Parking lots, interspersed with green lawns and a smallish field, were dotted across the front of the campus. The quiet field, covered in season with California poppies and heavily surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees, was used for annual commencement exercises, informal play, and the occasional school games. The activities were quiet and, except for Commencement, did nothing to interrupt the tranquility of the neighborhood.
In 2003, however, things changed. NDNU decided it would be financially beneficial to become coed. An active intra-mural sports program was introduced, no doubt to attract and retain male students, and, almost overnight, the little playing field alongside Ralston Avenue became the scene of bedlam. The intra-mural program resulted in a full-blown schedule of college league soccer and lacrosse games that completely changed the nature of the neighborhood. The grass on the field could not cope with the extra activity and soon the university decided to enlarge the field and cover it with artificial turf to turn it into a “state-of-the-art, world class” facility that could be used in all weathers. Many of the giant old trees were cut down to create space. Because the area was zoned Residential, a conditional use permit (CUP) was obtained from the City to enable the new field to be used as basically a full-blown ball park, but with certain restrictions on hours of use.
The field itself is located in a kind of bowl and the noise from the games travels in amphitheatre fashion up the hill opposite, to the rue of neighbors who live in its path. Instead of enjoying life in a “tranquil” place, they found themselves living in a sort of constant hell of noise, as games and practice sessions rolled into one another, weekend after weekend, and often day after day. In 2004, we invited a council member and a planning commissioner to our home to listen to one game. They declared, “No one should have to live like this,” and promised to introduce a city noise ordinance to address the issue.
The noise ordinance was eventually passed. However, it set a decibel level of 65, about the noise of a vacuum cleaner running, which, to our minds, is way too high to guarantee a tolerable living standard. (Note: The World Health Organization has recommended a far lower level of 55 db but notes that most Western countries insist on 40 db). Most importantly, the ordinance overlooked the fact that a single loud noise is quite different from continuous noise that lasts for hours at a time.
In 2009, NDNU applied for a new CUP that would allow unlimited use of the field, all year round, seven days a week, with no limits on who would be allowed to use the field. At the Planning Commission meeting to consider this, neighborhood protesters were shouted down by ardent NDNU supporters–most of whom do not live within sound of the field (some even live outside Belmont). Some said they “love the sound of little children playing.” Unfortunately, these are not little children. They are full-blown adults–spectators, coaches and players who bellow to one another as they run around the field –with whistles, horns, amplified music, etc. to add to the mix. Others say they just love the university–and whatever NDNU wants, NDNU should get (apologies to Lola!).
Incidentally, NDNU (a non-taxpayer) appears to get active cooperation from city staff who keep them fully informed on all developments, even advising when it would be a good idea to “pack” commission meetings with supporters. By contrast, noise opponents (who are tax-payers) are often not notified of key meetings or deadline dates for giving input. Another issue is that of the artificial turf used on NDNU’s field. There has been much concern raised by government and the media of the harmful effects of lead and other chemicals in Astro-Turf, especially where young players are involved. Repeated questions to city staff as to whether the turf on the field has been tested have not been answered. Amazingly, neither university supporters nor commissioners have shown any concern when this question is raised in meetings.
At the September 7 meeting of the Planning Commission, noise opponents presented a petition signed by 43 residents (31 households) who live directly in the path of the noise from the field. This requested that the Commission not allow expanded use of the field while so many people were still concerned with noise issues. In spite of this, the commissioners voted to approve NDNU’s requested new CUP with some minor modifications. They reasoned that because the noise from the games didn’t exceed the 65 db limit imposed by the noise ordinance, they had no grounds for withholding their permission.
So, can you fight City Hall? Probably not. Should you go on trying? I would hope so. I would love to hear from anyone who has had similar experiences in their city. www.margaretdavisbooks.com/fighting-city-hall.