Turn that Down

FIVE YEARS AGO, the True Apostolic Church moved from the Phillips neighborhood into Linden Hills and almost immediately started drawing fire for its amplified manner of worship. On sultry Sunday mornings, the church, which lacks central air, opens its windows and the sound of the service spills into the streets. "The immediate neighbors and church disagree about volume levels," says the area's City Council member, Steve Minn. "[The site] used to be a Lutheran church, but nobody knew [a church] was there until the Apostolic church came in," he says.

Northeast of Minn's Ward lies Lake Calhoun and Thomas Beach, which captured local headlines earlier this summer when residents complained about noisy beachgoers. Like Linden Hills, the dispute pits white homeowners against less-affluent black visitors. "There's a variety of problems in my ward," says city council representative Lisa McDonald, "but the biggest complaint is about loud boom boxes and radios."

All that may change soon, however. Armed with a new noise ordinance written specifically to address the complaints near True Apostolic and Thomas Beach, the city is poised to crack down on violators. With tightened standards and up to 20-fold increases in fines, the effort has garnered applause from residents seeking city living at suburban sound levels. But opponents contend that it's fraught with racial bias.

Here are the technicalities: In Minneapolis, any activity louder than 10 decibels above the "ambient level" of everyday noise like traffic, dogs barking, and kids playing is considered a violation between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (At night, the permissible level is only five decibels above ambient.) According to a handout from the city's Department of Environmental Health, conversational speech generates approximately 55 decibels, the average street traffic about 82, and a jet takeoff (from 300 feet away) registers at 130.

The ambient level for True Apostolic's neighborhood is 48, says Anne Stahn, an inspector who two years ago recorded True Apostolic's sound level at between 65 and 70 decibels. Given the option of paying a fine, which typically runs between $35 and $50, or going to court, the church hired an attorney. In April of '96, Hennepin County District Court Judge John Holahan sided with the congregation, saying Minneapolis's use of the noise ordinance violated the First Amendment.

The new law, says the City Council's McDonald, should do better in court, having been fortified with precise language targeting the areas of constituent complaints. Amplified sound is now considered a nuisance if it "carries to points of habitation on adjacent properties, and is audible above the level of conversational speech at a distance of 50 feet or more." The same applies to boom boxes and car stereos; if cops can hear the music from 50 feet away, they'll issue a ticket. The fine for a first offense is now $250, up from $35; a second offense is worth $500, and third-timers can expect to shell out $700.

The rub, says True Apostolic's leader, the Rev. Robert Hill, could lie in how the rules are enforced. "We have planes going over all the time," he notes. "The Basilica [of St. Mary's] had a huge rally that made much greater noise" than True Apostolic, but didn't generate controversy. Hill adds that no one complained when the church was in the Phillips neighborhood, but that problems began once they got to Linden Hills. "There's been a prejudicial atmosphere by Minn and neighbors from the moment we came into this area," he maintains. "The neighbors assume that because we are black, we are of a different class."

McDonald and Minn deny there's a racial bias to the ordinance revision, which McDonald says began long before the True Apostolic and Thomas Beach brouhahas. Besides, adds Minn, he's spent years trying to settle the dispute in his ward, at one point convincing a contractor to donate $10,000 worth of soundproof windows to the church. But his goodwill has its limits, he blusters. "I'm not going to give them a $43,000 [air conditioning] system. There's such a thing as the separation between church and state."

"We need help, but we aren't beggars," says Hill. This June, members of his congregation held a bazaar to raise funds for improvements. The event, however, appears to have slipped past Minn. "I haven't seen as much as a brownie at a bake sale," he protests. And while he concedes there have been fewer complaints this summer, he's ready for battle should the mercury climb once more. "We have neighbors standing by with pagers, and environmental people with video cams and meters."

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