Outside Lands’ 10-Year Permit Renewed, With No Sound Limits

Noise complaints about the festival rose 400 percent in 2018, placing Outside Lands’ pending permit under scrutiny.

“For the past few years, during a warm summer weekend, I’ve been a victim of a home invasion,” Jean Barish said at a Board of Supervisors meeting. “No, men in ski masks didn’t break into my home and terrorize me; it was an invasion from Another Planet. In a word, it was awful.”

The subject of the hearing was Outside Lands, the music-and-art festival that shuts down much of Golden Gate Park for a week every August. Specifically, the city weighed whether or not to renew its 10-year permit and whether and exempt the festival from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Consequently, it drew a slew of irate residents of the western edge of San Francisco to City Hall Tuesday, many of whom have long complained about the house-shaking music that emerges from the stages.

But their protests fell on deaf ears. After a 90-minute hearing, the Supervisors voted to renew the music festival’s 10-year permit without any additional requirements for mitigating sound.

Last year, noise complaints about the festival rose 400 percent. Some 190 people logged 245 complaints in all, from residences as distant as three miles away from the park. That was something of an anomaly. Since 2011, complaints about late-night bass have largely dropped year over year, going from 384 in 2011 to only 47 in 2016. (And while the definition of “late-night” is highly subjective, Outside Lands wraps up by 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 9 p.m. on Sunday.)

Lauren Eve Mayberry of Chvrches performs at Outside Lands in 2018. (Photo: Christopher Victorio)

In the past two years, though, complaints have started to rise again. Whether this is due to a higher decibel levels or lower tolerance thresholds is hard to say, but when Outside Lands appealed to the city to renew its 10-year permit — which expires in 2021 — some residents saw it as a key moment to demand that with the permit renewal come a standardized decibel limit, required under CEQA.

“2018 was a mess,” said Richard Drury, an attorney hired by a handful of residents from the avenues. “There was a 400-percent spike in noise complaints … from 50 complaints to more than 200. But Outside Lands didn’t violate anything because there was nothing to violate. All we’re saying is there has to be a number.

“At 165 decibels, your ears explode. It probably ought to be lower than that,” he added.

A proper CEQA analysis using outside sound technicians, Drury argues, could be done before the Outside Lands contract was renewed.

Regardless of how you feel about Outside Lands, Drury made a good argument. Just across the park is Sharon Meadows, which does have a decibel limit. The Recreation and Parks Commission required one in the wake of a series of frequent concerts — after all, it is right next to Hippie Hill and was the epicenter of the Summer of Love.

But Outside Lands comes around only once a year, and while noise complaints have risen recently, they’re not going ignored. No one from Another Planet spoke at the hearing, but Dana Ketcham, director of permits and property management at the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, described the on-the-ground efforts made every year to manage the decibel levels.

First, any Outside Lands complaints are funneled into a call center. If they’re noise-related, they’re immediately transferred to a dispatcher, who alerts park rangers and sound technicians planted throughout the Sunset and Richmond. They respond to the complainant’s location, measure the sound levels, and report them to the soundboard to make adjustments.

Ketcham acknowledges that in 2018 “there was a blip, and we were trying really hard to figure out what was going on and keep sound down.” They were partly successful; while 118 complaints rolled in on Friday, only 31 were reported on Sunday.

Knox Fortune performs at Outside Lands in 2018. (Photo: Christopher Victorio)

Out of concern that the noise complaints would threaten Outside Lands’ permit, more than a dozen supporters of the festival showed up to City Hall to speak on the record, from Poolside frontman Jeffrey Paradise to Walker Allen, a Cole Valley resident and owner of the wine bar Press Club.

“This noise is part of the culture that enriches the city. It is part of why I live here,” Allen argued. “I would argue that this very grit and soul is why we all put up with living here.”

Sunset business owners also spoke up. Dave Muller, who owns the popular restaurant Outerlands, pointed out that “urban living has a lot of noise, in general. The Outer Sunset is blessed with being quiet most of the year, but I would say things like Fleet Week is painful and terrifying in a way that Outside Lands has never been to my children,” he said.

Several union workers, who make up the more than 700 staff employed to build and break down the festival’s infrastructure each year, also spoke on the record, stating that Another Planet was a stand-up employer who supported the local economy.

Drury argued that his clients’ goal to have a CEQA process and a sound limit would not limit the existence of the festival.

“I think it would address the community’s concerns, Outside Lands can participate, the staff can participate, and we have a legally-enforceable mitigation plan,” he said.

But in the end, the supervisors voted unanimously to support the 10-year extension of the festival, while ruling it was still exempt from the CEQA process — a decision the city’s Planning Department reached weeks ago.

“Given the limited duration, the increased noise is not considered substantial under CEQA,” they stated. “This duration (three days annually) of increased noise levels is considered to be a level of noise increase that rises to annoyance, but it is not considered a substantial increase in the ambient noise for CEQA purposes.”

“I think that for those of us who live there — and I live eight homes from Golden Gate Park — we understand the compromise we are making so that people from all over the world and San Franciscans can listen to world-class music in a world-class city,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said.

But the sleepless, noise-tormented residents who are demanding a decibel limit haven’t given up quite yet. Andrew Solow says he’s considering suing — though the decision has to be made fast, in the next 30 days.

“We think the board made a mistake,” Drury told SF Weekly after the vote. “There really needs to be an enforceable noise limit for Outside Lands, just as there is for Sharon Meadows. We shouldn’t be treated any differently. People who live in the west end of the park are entitled to the same rights as the people who live on the east end.”

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