Officials at the Starlite Drive-In Theatre are dealing with more heat involving volume levels during its movies.
Last week, Christiansburg police cited the business for breaking the noise ordinance of the locality. Owners said at a recent council meeting the problems have affected them in a business sense as well as personally.
This is the only time the theatre has received a formal complaint in the form of a ticket, and were told by a police officer the sound was too loud at a nearby home.
Starlite owner Peggy Beasley argues the volume at the theatre is not too high, but neighbors say it shakes dishes in their nearby homes and makes it hard to even talk while movies are playing.
Through their car radios, movie patrons can tune into 90.3 and control their own volume to listen to the movie. Most other drive-ins that are still open around the country have also switched to the low band FM transmitter.
But use of the car radio does have its downfall. Many vehicles will have to be jumped at the end of the movie because their battery has been run down. The Starlite has been averaging seven to eight jumps a night.
The issue in the complaint is a new speaker system that was installed last spring.
“People wanted to get out of the cars, sit on the hood, in the back of the pickup trucks or on the ground. They couldn’t hear the radio so they complained. We put in the speakers to deal with that,” she said.
The upgrade to digital format in 2011 changed things and the elimination of car speakers took place out of necessity.
Beasley said she had to switch from the old car speakers to something else because of the expense associated with old ones.
“They’re getting harder and harder to find, and my father bought as many as he could when other theaters would close. But we started running out of them when people would steal or drive off with them still attached to their car window. For something else, we would have had to replace the wiring, poles and speakers themselves at a cost close to $60,000. So instead we switched to the FM transmitter and speakers outside,” she said.
Initially, last season the outdoor speakers were placed on top of the concession, but once some complaints were registered Beasley moved them to the front of the big screen at a much lower spot to help deal with the volume level.
She has repeatedly pointed out people that moved into the nearby neighborhoods knew what was near them in the form of a drive-in theatre that only operates six months of the year.
The expense associated with the new speakers was an estimated at $25,000, and Beasley said she can’t afford to spend any more money on upgrades and will attempt to still use the outdoor speakers as is. The price tag on the switch to the digital format was close to $30,000.
Beasley’s father planted a buffer of pine trees that still stand today in and around the theatre grounds, thus creating a natural sound barrier. For years, that seemed to help with the sound associated with the old system.
The town ordinance states that no noise cannot or should be plainly audible from 50 feet away. According to Beasley, in the citation the officer stated sound was audible from 100 feet away.
The ordinance also cites exceptions to the rule including sounds generated in business, industrial and mixed-use zoning districts that are necessary and incidental to the uses permitted therein.
Beasley said no one has ever personally contacted her with a complaint about the volume.
There has been some explanation that vehicles on the back row at the theatre are playing their radios too high and causing a bass affect that could be causing the complaints.
Several people on the Starlite Facebook page have complained about those individuals having their volume too high.
Beasley’s family opened the theatre in 1953 and has seen thousands of customers over the years. There had never been any real complaints during that time. The drive-in is open Thursday through Sunday.
During an informal walk-through of the neighborhood on Thursday, no individual or neighbor wished to make a public comment. But there have been complaints dating back to last year, again a time when things changed at the outdoor theatre.
Beasley has hired a Roanoke attorney to represent her who has asked for an injunction or an agreement with the town that the Starlite will not cited again until their day in court. The ticket requires Beasley to appear in court Tuesday, July 11.
If found guilty, Beasley could face a fine up to $75 for a first offense, or up to 10 days in jail.
If she has to turn off the outdoor speakers completely, Beasley expects business to fall, thus hurting her in even more ways.
She is considering renting radios so patrons can still sit outside and be able to use the FM frequency, and encourages people to bring their own when they do visit the theatre.