Outdoor church service upsets neighbors

Amplified music at the Ashland Christian Fellowship's outdoor worship services may represent a joyful noise to members, but some neighbors think it's just a nuisance.

"I can't sit on my back terrace on a Sunday morning and have a quiet cup of tea," said neighbor Isabeau Vollhardt, who lives in the Creekside Apartments on Hersey Street, not far from the church on the corner of Hersey and Oak Streets.

With the return of warm weather, Ashland Christian Fellowship has resumed outdoor services that include amplified musical instruments and singers.

Vollhardt has long been concerned about the outdoor music. She submitted a petition to city officials last year with the signatures of about 10 other neighbors who are also bothered by the noise.

City officials said they can do little about the noise because the church is in an area zoned for business activity, although it abuts a residential area. More noise is allowed in business zones than in residential zones.

Ashland Christian Fellowship Worship Pastor Rob Mackinnon said the church wants to be a good neighbor and he will work to lessen any disturbances affecting the neighborhood.

Vollhardt said she called the church last Sunday about the noise and members did turn down the sound levels. It was no longer audible from inside her home, although she could still hear the music when outside, she said.

Vollhardt said the bass in the music is often so loud that it vibrates the floor of her home.

She said the topography of the neighborhood creates a natural amphitheater that increases sound levels. The amplified music disturbs neighbors as well as guests at a nearby bed and breakfast innn, Vollhardt said.

"It is possible to do a service outside without having the music amplified so loud that the neighbors can't enjoy a quiet morning," she said, noting that sound checks for the music sometimes begin as early as 7 a.m.

Mackinnon said the church tries to start sound checks at 9 a.m. or later, but wants to have the sound adjusted by the time worshippers start showing up at 10 a.m.

With up to 500 people at services, he said the music needs to be amplified so that everyone can hear. But the church doesn't want to impose on neighbors or bed and breakfast inn guests either, he said.

"Most likely we will try to bring the level down so we're not disturbing anyone," Mackinnon said.

Even having outdoor worship services with no amplification would likely not please everyone, he said, noting that a person complained two years ago and didn't want the church to have outdoor services of any kind.

Mackinnon said the church is not trying to proselytize by having outdoor services.

"We're doing it to enjoy the beauty of God's creation in the open air," he said.

Mackinnon said Ashland Christian Fellowship loves its Ashland location and strives to be an integral part of the community.

The church created a public walking trail across its property, which borders Ashland Creek. Members are also part of the valley-wide "I Heart Rogue Valley" campaign in which churches and organizations take part in volunteer service projects.

Ashland Christian Fellowship isn't the only organization that has run afoul of neighbors when it comes to noise.

Problems often arise at properties that are in business zones near residential zones, said Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness.

On properties in business zones, people are allowed to make as much noise as would reasonably be produced by a business, including a light manufacturing facility, he said.

Churches, downtown businesses and the historic Ashland Armory — which hosts concerts and other events — often generate complaints from neighbors, Holderness said, but police won't issue citations unless the noise is unreasonably loud for a business zone.

"When we write a citation, we have to be able to justify to a judge that the noise was unreasonable," he said, adding that time of day, activities allowed by the zoning and other factors have to be considered by police officers.

Holderness said that, to his knowledge, police have never ticketed Ashland Christian Fellowship, although officers have asked church members to redirect speakers and take other steps to reduce noise. He said the church is not required to get city noise permits for its amplified music events because it's in a business zone.

Holderness said city staff members will be putting together a response to neighbors' concerns, but ultimately, it would be up to the Ashland City Council to make any changes to the city's noise laws.

Putting sound restrictions on church services may not be legal in many cases, Holderness said.

City of Ashland Assistant Planner Amy Gunter said federal law often gives churches extra leeway when it comes to zoning regulations. For example, churches can build on rural land that is designated for exclusive farm use, she said.

Ideally, all loud business and organization activities would be clustered together in one commercial area that would be buffered from surrounding homes by a quieter office zone, Holderness said.

"Most cities don't grow up that way," he said. "With a city this small, so many uses are near each other."

Holderness said even police officers can draw the ire of neighbors upset by noise, although officers try to mitigate any sound impacts.

"We get complaints about noise at the Ashland Police Department, for example, if we have to bring in a prisoner at night and he's screaming," Holderness said. "Right next to us are condominiums."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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