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Residents ask Detroit Zoo officials to limit amplified noise from concerts, exhibits

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published February 17, 2015

 Detroit Zoo Chief Operating Officer Gerry VanAcker discusses actions zoo officials have taken to mitigate amplified noise.

Detroit Zoo Chief Operating Officer Gerry VanAcker discusses actions zoo officials have taken to mitigate amplified noise.

Photo by Sarah Purlee


HUNTINGTON WOODS/ROYAL OAK — Huntington Woods and Royal Oak residents who live near the Detroit Zoo are tired of the increased noise coming from the zoo in recent years and are willing to make some noise of their own until the problem is solved.

The Detroit Zoo held a public forum Feb. 12 to explain how it has addressed noise complaints in recent years, and to give people from the nearby communities an opportunity to voice their frustrations.

While the zoo is home to several species of animals, it isn’t the animals that the community is concerned about; rather, the community is concerned about amplified noise coming from private and special events, such as concerts and the upcoming Dinosauria exhibit.

“I have seen the zoo go from what its original intent was, which was a zoological park, to transform itself into a concert venue,” Royal Oak resident Arthur Woehrlen said. “This is the problem most of my neighbors have with the zoo. It is not the animals, it is not the good work the zoo does, but the amplified sound events on weekends and during the week.”

Detroit Zoo officials presented their schedule of events with amplified sound for 2015, and four events go to at least 10:30 p.m., with one event going until 11:30 p.m. In total, the zoo has more than 50 events planned for 2015 with amplified noise, not including the Dinosauria exhibit that is scheduled to run from May 22-Sept. 7.

In recent years, Chief Operating Officer Gerry VanAcker said the zoo has hired sound engineers to help with decreasing noise problems. Thus far, the zoo has changed the orientation of stages to face away from residents, relocated or removed speakers, and made vendors renting space in the zoo adhere to the Royal Oak noise ordinance.

Still, the noise is bothering neighbors and even some that live east of Woodward Avenue in downtown Royal Oak.

Royal Oak resident Jennifer Harris said her family lives in downtown Royal Oak and has had enough problems with noise that causes her child to wake up at night.

“I am on the other side of Woodward, and my little guy here is waking up from your concerts,” Harris said. “I went outside and I thought I would call the police because one of my neighbors was having a garage band concert outside, but it turns out it was the zoo.

“Perhaps you are not aware that the noise is traveling across Woodward to downtown Royal Oak. But just responding that you hit the decibel level allowed by Royal Oak, that is not good enough.”

The Detroit Zoo does adhere to the Royal Oak noise ordinance, but Huntington Woods city officials made the zoo exempt from the city’s noise ordinance last summer, along with other city parks. City Manager Amy Sullivan said after the January City Commission meeting that the commission may reconsider putting the zoo back under the ordinance.

As far as the Dinosauria exhibit, which was last at the Detroit Zoo in 2011, residents complained that the exhibit continually plays the same soundtrack over and over and it makes it unbearable to be in the area during the 9 a.m.-5 p.m. runtime.

In an effort to help with the noise mitigation, VanAcker said zoo officials met with national experts on dinosaur exhibits to brainstorm ideas. Officials have already redone the soundtrack to eliminate some low bass notes, and volume controls were added to speakers to make the volume adjustable.

VanAcker said they are looking to put motion detectors on speakers in the northern third of the exhibit, which runs along the northern border of the zoo, to stop the soundtrack from playing when no visitors are around.

“Some of the feedback from neighbors is that the same track seemed to run over and over and over,” VanAcker said. “So with these motion detectors, those would be activated when there was a visitor there, and if not, they would be silent. By doing that on the northern third of the exhibit, we think we can keep the sound volume down.”

While many of the issues are with amplified noise from special or private events, VanAcker said those events make up less than 15 percent of the zoo’s annual attendance. Still, he said holding events such as concerts at the zoo is not likely to go away.

“With cultural institutions, society demands that they are more than looking at art or visiting the animals, but places where folks can gather,” he said. “Really, what we are doing is responding to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb residents and what they require. They want to come to a place where people gather and there are fun events, and many times that involves amplified sound. That is probably not going to change because that is what the community requires.”

VanAcker said he is not sure what the next step is, but he said the zoo would communicate with the nearly 50 people who attended the meeting via email to keep them informed, and he said another meeting in the summer would be “a great next step.”

However, Huntington Woods resident Aaron Retish, who was one of the residents to bring the noise complaints to the City Commission’s attention, said action needs to be taken so the same meeting does not continue to repeat itself.

“It is very nice to say we want to be good neighbors, but let’s move forward,” Retish said. “Let’s set up a commission, have regular meetings, and let’s make sure we have agreed-upon ordinances. I am very concerned this is going to be the end and we will continue to have this type of blockade, so let’s move forward and start building some trust.”