CHRISTIANSBURG—The line continues to be drawn in the sand between Christiansburg officials and the owners of a local drive-in theatre.
The town is considering slight adjustments to its noise ordinance that follow the Starlite Drive-In being cited for breaking the current ordinance.
Last year, the Starlight Drive-In was cited by Christiansburg Police twice after sound from its movies caused neighbors to complain.
The matter was taken to circuit court where a Montgomery County judge recommended the town examine its current noise ordinance and see if they and the theatre could find some common ground.
The town believes the changes introduced over the last two weeks do just that, but supporters and owners of the theatre fear that the business is being unfairly singled out.
The matter dates back five years when changes started taking place at the theatre. The Starlite removed individually-car mounted speakers and switched to a FM-transmitted radio system that many drive-ins are using around the country.
But customers complained that they could not sit on the back of their cars or trucks and hear the movies. Additionally, customers that used the FM-transmitter system would sometimes kill their vehicle’s battery.
Thus, the Starlite installed an amplified outdoor speaker system, the town says was not necessary for the business as the theatre operated for decades without it, and customers could listen on the 90.3 frequency through car stereos or via translator radios with a deposit.
Thursday evening, an estimated 100 people packed into the Christiansburg council chambers. Most asked the town not to shutter the 65-year-old attraction.
Marshall Thomas said he has lived in the adjacent Starlite Court for several years and has never had a problem with the sound.
Tammy Worley agreed and asked people to pull together and make things work.
Councilman Steve Huppert told the group it’s sometimes hard to balance the needs of every resident in the town, but the governmental body will try to do everything possible to do that when the time comes to vote on the measure.
For the past eight months, social media like Facebook has lit up with concerns about saving the Starlite.
Christiansburg spokesperson Melissa Demmitt said despite the social media conversations to the contrary, the town is not trying to shut down the theatre.
“Absolutely not. The Starlite is one of the region’s favorite attractions, has entertained generations of families and is a beloved Christiansburg tradition. We love that it’s in town and has continued to bring new visitors to our community,” she said before the meeting.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association says there are an estimated 368 theatres still open in the country (eight in Virginia), down from 4,063 in 1958.
The period of 1978-1988 was extremely hard on the industry as over 1,000 Drive-In’s closed their gates. A short time later, owners were hit with changing dynamics of digital theatre and audio. Some like the Starlite bit the bullet and installed the expensive equipment in order to keep up with the changing industry.
For decades, town officials say they never received a noise complaint about the Starlite, until 2016. Again, what changed? Demmitt said it was about the same time the theatre starting using the new “sound delivery system.” Prior to that, nearby residents never had an issue.
J.C. Grubb spoke at Thursday’s meeting and admitted he was a neighbor that had been affected by the increase in volume from the movie theatre. He doesn’t want the Starlite to close and is hoping everyone involved can find a solution that is satisfactory to everyone.
“I was watching TV in my bedroom with my windows closed and the volume was really high from a movie on that night. I never had a problem until they started using the new speakers. When the speakers changed two years ago, it got louder,” he said.
Grubb felt it was a shame that people should be arguing like children.
“We should be able to come up with a solution as adults,” he said.
Critics on social media have also alluded to a zoning map that does not show the Starlite. Demmitt said the town believes the business is referencing a future land use map in the 2013 Comprehensive Plan.
“The map designates the area around the Starlite as residential for future uses due to the surrounding neighborhoods and the property’s distance from Roanoke Street. This map is not “new” and it’s not a zoning map. The property has been designated residential as far back as 1993. The map is just a guide for potential future uses and does not change or affect zoning,” she said.
The public information officer also said the town has attempted to work with the Starlite for more than two years while not citing them for multiple violations.
The proposed changes in the new noise ordinance would allow for a conditional use permit (CUP) process. If a business believes it will repeatedly violate the noise ordinance, it can apply for a permit that will allow it to operate under council-approved parameters, thus allowing the Starlite to continue to operate.
“Town council will look at conditions to help alleviate the impact the business’ noise will have on its neighbors—such as specific time restrictions or physical measures to contain noise,” Demmitt said.
The town also will not measure volume of noise according to decibels. Many jurisdictions including Christiansburg have found it difficult to measure the levels because of the need for specialized equipment and training. Instead, they will measure it under the label of “plainly audible.”
Peggy Beasley, the owner and operator of the Starlite, offered an olive branch during the meeting that she hopes every party involved could agree upon.
“We agree to the following compromises if this can be obtained within the new ordinance,” she said. “This ordinance should reflect the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, while protecting the minority.”
The Starlite has committed to a radio-only movie after the first showings on Friday and Saturday. Then on Thursday and Sunday, the Starlite will only show one movie.
Beasley also asked the town to consider the time cutoff for the noise ordinance be extended to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.
Other business owners like Darren March, who owns Due South BBQ (next to the Starlite) and Fatback Soul Shack on Roanoke Street also spoke for the need for an extended time frame on the weekends.
March’s business has built an open-air stage in his parking lot near Interstate 81, which has also been cited by the town for breaking the noise ordinance.
“Under the noise ordinance, cows are exempt. They’re mooing all night long. I just want to be able to moo all night long too. I think we as a business should be treated better than cows,” he said.
Cows and other farm animals are exempt under the Virginia Right to Farm Act, which states that agriculture operations in agriculture zoning districts cannot be regulated, as long as the operation is using best management practices.
In a written statement, the town reiterated that it is not singling out any particular business with the proposed changes, but instead is attempting to make it easier for businesses and the town to reach agreed-upon parameters when it comes to noise.
“We have a duty as a town to protect our residents’ property rights and quality of life, but at the same time, we want to encourage entertainment options and help our businesses succeed. It’s a balancing act, and we’re doing our best to find a workable solution,” the letter read.
A public hearing will be held in front of the town’s planning commission March 19 with council discussing the matter on April 10.
A final decision could come by the end of the April, just a few weeks before the Starlite is scheduled to open for the 2018 movies season.
Written comments on this measure can also be emailed to Planning Director Andrew Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org.