Church, neighborhoods seeking common ground on amphitheater

The church campus and amphitheater are located along Hwy. 71 in Southwest Austin.

The church campus and amphitheater are located along Hwy. 71 in Southwest Austin.

LifeAustin Church’s amphitheater on Hwy. 71 has been the subject of much controversy throughout the years, in large part because of sound from worship services and its effect on neighborhoods in the rural residential area. In February the city of Austin Board of Adjustment, which handles zoning cases, is slated to postpone further discussion of the amphitheater until April 11, according to city staff.


The church in December reached out to some nearby residents representing the Hill Country Estates Homeowners Association and Covered Bridge Property Owners Association and has been meeting with them to try to determine next steps. For example, sound tests may be conducted in residents’ homes to determine just how loud music from the amphitheater is, Covered Bridge POA President Mike Kirk said.


“LifeAustin seems to be motivated to try to come up with a resolution,” Kirk said, adding: “We are all trying to be very amenable about this.”


The church does not want to shut down the amphitheater, which was approximately a $7 million investment and is helping the church accomplish its mission of transforming lives through faith, said Dennis Broughton, LifeAustin Church board member.


“We are hopeful that there can be some common ground,” he said. “There have been many [residents] who have taken the position that they want that thing bulldozed. ... We were given the right by the city to develop this. This has always been part of our vision.”


Kirk said the residents he represents are not opposed to religion, but many are opposed to the amplified sound from the site during worship events.


“We don’t think [the amphitheater] was properly approved,” he said.




Residents in Southwest Austin have to wait at least until February before hearing a decision on LifeAustin Church’s controversial amphitheater from the city of Austin Board of Adjustment. The amphitheater, located on Hwy. 71, began hosting events in mid-2015 despite some residents’ opposition to amplified sound from the facility.[/caption]

History


LifeAustin Church, originally named PromiseLand West Bible Church, started in 2005 with about 80 members, Broughton said. Now about 2,000 people worship at the church on Sundays.


The church was completed in October 2012. Broughton said LifeAustin wanted to build the amphitheater on its 53-acre private property for people who might be reluctant to enter a traditional church but would be willing to come to an outdoor worship center.


The property is zoned for residential use, and one of the allowed uses is religious assembly. The city conducted sound testing at the property and instructed LifeAustin to operate under residential noise code, Broughton said.




LifeAustin Church LifeAustin Church's campus off Hwy. 71 includes its main church building, which opened in 2012.[/caption]

“We are happy to operate under the ordinances that the city has instructed us to operate under,” he said.


In this case, PromiseLand West filed for site plan approval and building permits. The city and Greg Guernsey, the city’s planning and zoning department director, approved them in 2008 under a religious assembly use determination, Guernsey said. Some residents disputed that decision, saying the amphitheater—including hosting Christian bands before large crowds—should not be considered religious assembly use.


Local neighborhood groups, including the Hill Country Estates HOA and the Covered Bridge POA, have fought the amphitheater’s construction for years. Those two associations sued both the city and Guernsey. 


The amphitheater was completed in June 2015, Broughton said. The facility has a capacity of about 1,580, he said.


At a Dec. 9 public hearing, the BOA heard from residents who think the amphitheater should be allowed to continue to operate as well as those who think the noise is a nuisance.


The board, which has the authority to hear an appeal over a use determination, voted unanimously to postpone action on the case to Feb. 8. The board’s task is not to make a ruling regarding amplified sound but to examine the codes in place at the time the site plan was approved and determine how Guernsey decided to approve construction. Board member Michael Von Ohlen urged residents and church representatives to come up with a compromise.




LifeAustin board of adjustment hearing At a Dec. 9 meeting the city of Austin's board of adjustment heard testimony from members of LifeAustin Church who think the church's amphitheater should be allowed to continue to operate as well as from area residents who think amplified sound there is a nuisance.[/caption]

Some residents want the board to reverse the land-use determination that outdoor religious assembly is a principal use under religious assembly in the area’s zoning district, said Robert Kleeman, an attorney with Sneed, Vine & Perry P.C., representing Hill Country Estates, Covered Bridge POA and residents at the hearing.


The group also wants the board to reverse the site plan as it pertains to the amphitheater only, Kleeman said.


If the church and its neighbors reach an agreement, the appeal could be withdrawn, Guernsey said. If the board reverses the determinations, LifeAustin could appeal, he said.


Board member Melissa Neslund said during the hearing that based on the facts of the case, she would have a hard time overturning it.


LifeAustin purchased state-of-the-art sound systems and monitoring equipment to control sound from the amphitheater, Business Pastor John Capezzuti said. The city allows amplified sound under 75 decibels at one’s property line without a permit from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in residential areas. Sound from the amphitheater has never exceeded that level, he said.


Kristen Cox, a Covered Bridge resident since 2007, said some residents can still hear the music in their homes despite the church’s efforts.


“What’s frustrating about it is that we as neighbors have had so many meetings over the years with the church, and we have always felt like they were unwilling to budge on the amphitheater,” she said. 




LifeAustin Amphitheater The LifeAustin Amphitheater is located off Hwy. 71.[/caption]

Capezzuti noted not all residents oppose the amphitheater, and the church received about 500 signatures on a petition in support of the facility.


Church member Allen Harrison said the amphitheater is an expression of what members have been called to be.


“I realize that it can seem a little bit unconventional to have an amphitheater as part of a church worship service ... but it really shouldn’t,” he said. “Jesus did some of his best work outside.”


He said LifeAustin wants to come to an agreement with residents and have that agreement approved by the city.


Cox said the bottom line for her and many other residents is that they do not want to hear the music in their homes.


“I am much more optimistic now than I have been for the last seven years,” she said. “I sense in [LifeAustin] a definite desire to make things right.”