Couple files lawsuit to quiet marching band

Next-door practices too loud, they say

January 09, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

URBANA - Everyone loves a parade, but who can stand all the practicing?

Not Paul and Brenda Geisbert. The couple's brick rancher is next door to Urbana High School, and they say they can't eat, sleep or talk in peace while the award-winning Mighty Hawks marching band drills for hours on end in a parking lot barely 25 yards away. The booming drums and blaring horns even make the trinkets rattle on their bedroom shelves.

"When I was in the Army, my heart swelled when they played the `Star-Spangled Banner,'" says Paul Geisbert. "But it wasn't every day, twice a day, and on weekends."

The Geisberts have filed a lawsuit in Frederick County Circuit Court accusing the band of "noise pollution" that deprives them of the use and enjoyment of their home. They are asking a judge to bar the band from practicing outside the school unless it moves elsewhere or tones down the sound.

The lawsuit is one of the stranger symptoms of the growing pains being felt by this once-rural community five miles south of Frederick, where 3,500 homes are sprouting in former farm fields along Interstate 270. Paul Geisbert is a longtime resident. He and his wife have raised three children on the two-thirds of an acre tract in the past 26 years. He says his parents lived here 50 years.

Since Urbana High was built five years ago in a 60-acre field beside their house, the Geisberts say they have been besieged by the sound of the band's practicing almost daily from midsummer through fall.

"We'd sit at this table with the windows down," Paul Geisbert, 50, says while sitting in his kitchen, "and someone would say, `Please pass the mashed potatoes.' I'd say, `What?'"

He produces a set of calendar books to recount the dozens of telephone calls he has made to the principal, to school board officials, even to county politicians to seek a meeting to resolve the family's noise complaints - in vain.

"All the marching band has to do is march a little bit aways," says Michael Darrow, an Annapolis lawyer the Geisberts hired after being turned down by Frederick lawyers. "Sound has an inverse relationship to distance."

Frederick County school officials say the band is doing nothing wrong and that there is no other place convenient to practice.

"The band needs to play in proximity to the band room so they don't lose instructional time by going to another location," says Jamie Cannon, a lawyer for the school system.

The Geisberts' lawsuit has not earned them much sympathy in Frederick County, where high school marching bands take their place in the All-American hierarchy next to football and apple pie.

"I know for me it can't be loud enough," one band booster wrote in a message posted on the band's Web site. "Soooooo Urbana Mighty Hawks spread your wings and play it loud, loud, loud!!!!"

Seventy-five musicians strong, the band is one of the best in the mid-Atlantic region and has a loyal following of parents, students and alumni. It finished 14th among schools its size in November in a nine-state marching band tournament held in Pennsylvania, and its percussion unit came in third.

The band practices rigorously to be in top marching trim for football games, parades and competitions. That means two 90-minute classes daily during school, and 2 1/2 -hour practices at least two evenings a week. Geisbert says the band also drills sometimes on weekends.

The dispute has remained civil for the most part, though Brenda Geisbert, 48, says she got an anonymous call to "think about what you're doing" after the suit was filed. A couple of neighbors have expressed sympathy anonymously, the Geisberts say.

The football field - behind the school and farther from the Geisberts' house - is too busy to use for practice, says Randy Rumpf, the band director.

"Between boys and girls soccer, football, JV football and everything else, there's no time to get the field," he says.

There are practice fields on the other side of the school, but it would take 20 to 30 minutes away from each practice to lug all the band equipment there and back, the director says.

Complaints about brassy marching bands are an oddity in this part of the country, where booming stereos and barking dogs are more common nuisances. There have been some gripes in western states - and at least one lawsuit in California - over bands that practice in the early morning to avoid the region's heat.

But the law has tended to make allowances for bands, and Maryland appears to be no exception.

"Marching bands apparently are exempt under state law for sporting events as well as parades and things," said Richard McIntyre, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "But the law is silent when it comes to practices."

State law limits noise to 65 decibels in the daytime and 55 decibels at night. An MDE inspector visited the Geisberts two years ago and measured sound above 70 decibels while the band was practicing, Paul Geisbert says. The state took no action, however.

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