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Festival at Woodward Reservoir hit sour notes for some area residents

Festival goers interact with one of the many colorful and vibrant art pieces that take on a completely different feel in the dark during the closing nocturnal events of the 2013 Symbiosis Gathering held at Woodward Reservoir just north of Oakdale Sunday night (09-22-13).
Festival goers interact with one of the many colorful and vibrant art pieces that take on a completely different feel in the dark during the closing nocturnal events of the 2013 Symbiosis Gathering held at Woodward Reservoir just north of Oakdale Sunday night (09-22-13). The Modesto Bee

Not everyone, it turns out, loved the five-day Symbiosis Gathering.

Although purposely located far from urban centers, the otherwise peaceful, earth-friendly music and arts festival that ended Monday at Woodward Reservoir drew several complaints about loud music Sunday night from neighbors 5 miles away.

“I’m a music lover – hard rock ’n’ roll – but ‘boom, boom, boom,’ all bloody day and night?” said Ralph Gregory. “It’s like pulling up next to a subwoofer nightmare car, except the nightmare didn’t drive away.”

For Monday’s Bee, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department reported no arrests or major incidents, and only minor complaints about some people driving around the rural reservoir looking for a way to get in without paying the entrance fee – from $100 to $275 for two- to five-day passes.

But in wee hours just before newspapers hit porches, some neighbors had had enough. Sgt. Hector Longoria said “a number” of noise complaints began rolling in, enough that a sergeant on night duty at the department’s mobile command center contacted festival organizers.

“We responded immediately,” said producer Karen KoChen, who ordered the volume dropped 20 decibels even though bands and other amplified music had stayed within loudness limits set on Symbiosis’ permit, approved in April by county supervisors.

Longoria confirmed that decibel readings taken by deputies showed that Symbiosis had kept its word and played by the rules.

Some neighbors can’t imagine why limits were set so high – up to 110decibels 80 feet away, or similar to front rows of a rock concert – until 3a.m. and a bit less after. Busy street traffic would measure about 70 on that scale, and a military jet taking off about 140, according to The Physics Classroom.

“We live two miles from the lake and are happy the event will be over today,” wrote Yvonna Van Vliet Ray in comments at the end of Monday’s Bee story. She continued, “24 hours of nonstop, thumping music is not welcome!”

“I’m three miles away,” wrote Mark Fitzgerald. “I can’t imagine what hell the people (closer) went through.”

Michael Cadra said heavy bass shook his double-pane windows 5 miles away all night long.

“This has been a total imposition,” said Cadra, a Modesto surgeon, who, like others, said it was nearly impossible to sleep. “I don’t know what this brought to the county, but it sure brought a lot of heartache for people surrounding it.”

The county’s take depends on ticket sales and was estimated at $108,500 in April. Symbiosis must forward a check by Oct. 7.

Some complained that they were caught off-guard by the festival, a temporary city of about 8,000 people “dedicated to creating transformative and inspiring experiences based on a deep respect for our community and environment,” according to literature.

KoChen said Symbiosis mailed notices to neighbors and even “offered options on various ways to work it out if they wanted to stay off site,” such as at a hotel. Nobody took her up on that, although some did come by to check out the event, which featured dozens of booths and hundreds of tents.

Longoria said he empathizes with neighbors, but said Symbiosis stayed “well within their permitted decibel range.”

“All in all, I would still call this a relatively peaceful event,” the sergeant said.

One injury occurred early Monday when an attendee apparently dived into shallow water before 7a.m., suffered a neck injury and was flown by helicopter to a Modesto hospital, Longoria said.

Keith Boggs, a music fan and county assistant chief executive officer, lives 3 miles from the site and said he was not bothered. Like others, he intended to accept KoChen’s offer of free tickets to nearby neighbors, but rain kept him indoors Saturday.

“There was just a low, very faint backbeat so that you knew something was going on, but it was far away,” Boggs said. “It wasn’t something I dwelled upon. You’d have to work pretty hard to be upset by it.”

Bringing business to the county is part of Boggs’ job. He said, “I see our regional parks as an opportunity to generate revenue, to tell a positive story and be a positive to our region.”

In separate interviews, Longoria, Boggs and KoChen said they would brainstorm solutions to noise complaints in post-event debriefings, in case Symbiosis wants to return. The event has wandered since 2005 among various venues in Northern California and Nevada, returning to a location only once, in Calaveras County in 2007 after an appearance the year before. KoChen won’t say whether Oakdale will stay in the running.

“We absolutely love this site,” she said Monday. “We’d very much like to investigate the possibility (of returning), but it’s important to us to find the right fit. Overall, it’s been a really wonderful experience.”