A newfound source of revenue for the Smoky Mountain Events Center has become a hot-button issue for neighbors who complain that noise levels have become unbearable during evening concerts.
The Center, widely known as the Haywood County Fairgrounds before a name change earlier this year, is located off N.C. 209 and within a mile of several residential neighborhoods.
Some residents say the noise levels and rhythmic beats shake photos on their wall and makes conversing or watching television all but impossible during the events that have been held from 7 to 10 p.m. several nights a week. Even worse, some say, is that bands begin sound checks in the late afternoon on concert days, extending the disruptions even longer.
“The volume of music is incredibly loud,” said John Phillips, who lives on Hideaway Lane, just above Regina Park, the subdivision closest to the events center property. “It literally vibrates the house and makes it almost impossible to hear anything else.”
DeeAnn Wilmont, who lives off Walnut Ford Road just past the feed store on Old Clyde Road, said the loud concert noise not only hurts her ears, but makes it impossible to think, let alone converse or enjoy a conversation.
One concert was bluegrass, a music genre she and her husband enjoy.
“We love music, but couldn’t stand the intensity,” she said. “We had company that night and the kids visiting were 5 and 7. They could not go to sleep and there was nothing we could do.”
Linda Sexton, who lives in a nearby neighborhood known as Foxfire Estates, has become so fed up with the sound resonating up the mountain that she’s circulating a petition in the community. It is available online at community.sumofus.org, and she also plans to go door to door with a written version of the petition that will eventually be presented to the county commissioners.
“I don’t feel there is any excuse for permitting this kind of noise that ultimately destroys property value,” she said. “I heard a rumor they want to build a permanent stage. This unreal amount of noise is very shocking to us. I’ve never heard noise quite like it. I’d compare the vibrations to earthquakes, where pictures shake. But this goes on for the duration of the concert.”
Sexton said she stood on her deck with her contractor, who she said told her he couldn’t believe the house was vibrating and the lights were flickering.
Board intervention requested
Disgruntled event center neighbors took their concerns to the county board of commissioners Monday night. The concerts held on multiple levels of the naturally terraced event center grounds have speakers at the bottom and top of the grounds, and the sound travels up the mountain, several explained.
Residents expressed worry not only over the life disruption, but their health given that loud noise can damage hearing. Others cited a potential decline in their property values.
Janie Grove, who lives in nearby Regina Park, said she bought her home a year ago. Since the concerts have begun, she said she’s noticed people driving through the neighborhood and parking so they can walk into the concert without paying.
“The vibration is unbelievable, and I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I don’t want to have to sell my house because of this. And if I did, I don’t think I could get back what I paid for it.”
Smoky Mountain Events Center Manager Chris Caldwell said some of the traffic residents may have noticed on concert nights was him driving around to take decibel meter readings. The neighborhood readings ranged between 65 and 71, he said, and were at 85 at the perimeter of the property.
Earlier in the meeting, Sexton said the decibel level at her porch was 89 during the Saturday concert.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a section on noise as it relates to hearing impairment.
Brian Good, who owns the Asheville Music Hall, told the commissioners his venue has been shut down for 214 days and had to pivot to find a new way to operate during the pandemic. He said partnering with Smoky Mountain Event Center helped both entities and was a way to bring world-class acts to Haywood that also brought in tourism dollars.
He said he has been able to offer employment for 50 of his staff during the concerts and that business owners from gas stations to restaurants to motels have thanked him for bringing the acts to Haywood.
He said he does understand the noise concerns and has complied with the county noise ordinance.
One neighbor, Brian Renegar, lives near the event center property and said he’s enjoyed the concerts, except for the bluegrass, and thanked the board for letting them happen.
The Smoky Mountain Events Center is the nonprofit organization that leases the buildings and property from Haywood County. Commissioner Tommy Long, who serves as the event center board chairman, said the organization has a standard lease agreement and informs those renting it that they need to follow state laws and county ordinances.
“We lease it and don’t discriminate on who we lease it to,” Long said. “We can’t pick one and not someone else. It’s up to them to abide by the laws and the ordinance. I spent two hours down there during one of the concerts. There were about 1,000 people there from 12 states, and they were all having a good time. The noise didn’t seem bad to me at all.”
It costs $3,000 a month just to pay insurance and keep the utilities on, Long said, and the pandemic has significantly impacted funding for the organization, including loss of revenue from the county fair, the regularly scheduled events in the outdoor arenas and the numerous other events scheduled in the buildings throughout the year.
Asheville Music Hall pays $300 a night to lease the grounds, and also provides the county with a share of the wristband revenue.
Following the extensive public comments, the commissioners weighed in on the issue, sympathizing with the residents who live near the events center. Several said they had received complaints and spent a couple of hours at the site during the concerts to gauge the noise levels for themselves.
Several board members explained people in every part of the county have certain things they need to endure, from interstate noise to shooting on weekends to neighboring buildings that might not be something they want to look at.
Long asked County Manager Bryant Morehead to look into the Maggie Valley noise ordinance, and Commissioner Mark Pless asked the group to investigate potential solutions, including a barrier wall that could dampen sound.
While revisiting the noise ordinance was not off the table, Long cautioned those at the meeting that the commissioners must make rules that apply to 62,000 people across the entire county.
“If we tweak an ordinance, it might satisfy a small group, but could affect a lot of people, maybe some in a negative way,” he said.
The county noise ordinance specifies that loud noise must cease at 10 p.m., something the event center management said is faithfully followed.
Neighbors contend there are other provisions in the ordinance to consider beside cut-off time, and they prefer that the music events cease altogether.
Dan Wilmont referenced the county ordinance provision, stating that the creation of any unreasonably loud, disturbing raucous and unnecessary noises that annoy or disturb a reasonable person of normal sensibilities is prohibited.
“They need to look at other sections of the ordinance,” he said.