Metropolis: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
‘These are people in power that are pulling the strings.’
Sound or Silence

A teen-club owner and his not-so-near neighbors take their fight to court.


A battle between the city of Arlington and a teen dance club reached municipal court last week, but the verdict apparently won’t stop the music or the fight.

Before the jury reached its verdict, both the city prosecutor and the defendant said the trial’s outcome would do much to determine whether the city would barrel ahead or back away from its aggressive noise enforcement at Dreamworld Music Complex.

After an hour of deliberation, six middle-aged jurors found club owner John Tunnell guilty of two noise violations and levied the maximum $500 fine for each citation. Add in court costs, and Tunnell owes about $1,150 to the city and still has another handful of noise violation tickets to deal with in the future.

Tunnell said he will appeal and get the case moved to a Tarrant County court because he doesn’t feel he received a fair trial in a city that he believes had conducted a coordinated effort, led by retired city employee Norman Clark, to drive him out of business. “Obviously the whole thing was one-sided, and Norman Clark has connections,” he said. “These are people in power that are pulling strings. The fact that they own the court and they own the judge and they own the prosecutor and everybody, makes the whole thing one-sided and we’re absolutely going to a higher court, a place that doesn’t have the same strings attached.”

A combination of factors appeared to beat Tunnell, including a jury pool of 13 people who looked nothing like the defendant and his friends, most of whom are young and inked, dyed, or pierced in some form or another. Added to that was a last-minute pro bono defense attorney who was consistently outmaneuvered by the savvy Linda Frank, Arlington’s chief prosecuting attorney, who successfully blocked Tunnell from presenting videotaped evidence that he felt certain would prove his innocence.

The trial centered on whether noise coming from Dreamworld was unreasonable. Tunnell’s brother, soundman River Tunnell, testified that he uses a decibel meter to monitor the volume of sound produced by bands, ensuring they do not exceed 70 decibels. Police officers told the Tunnells in March 2001 that a sound reading of 70 decibels or less at the club’s front door was low enough to avoid disturbing residents on Sheffield Street, which is about a half-mile south as the crow flies, across a field and a railroad track.

The Tunnells say they have kept the sound below 70 decibels at all times but are still harassed by Clark and police. But Frank characterized as “hearsay” the brothers’ claim that police set a 70-decibel limit, and she objected to River Tunnell’s testimony, saying he is not an expert on sound or the use of a “decimeter.”

Complaints have come almost exclusively from two residents — Clark and Michael Boothe — who live two houses apart on Sheffield Street. Boothe took the stand and disputed Dreamworld’s claim that the music doesn’t reach his house. His testimony made about as much sense as some song lyrics. “Sound is not just noise, it’s sensation and perception,” he said. “You cannot have sound without the auditory mechanisms of the ear and brain. We’ve all heard ‘If the tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise?’ The answer is no, because there is no ear to hear it.”

He called the music “physically antagonistic.”

Dreamworld opened in December 2000 in a vacant warehouse on West Division Street, a busy thoroughfare in an area zoned for light industrial businesses.

Tunnell was upfront with the city about his plans to transform the metal warehouse into a Christian-themed music complex. Dreamworld is a 12,500-square-foot building with rehearsal rooms, a recording studio, and a dance hall that holds 980 patrons. Dreamworld sells only non-alcoholic beverages. Yet, not everyone’s vision of Christian music, attire, and behavior is the same.

Dreamworld features loud music and attracts teens who wear punk rock attire. Tunnell shuns tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, and urges patrons to follow his lead, although some youngsters openly smoke cigarettes in the parking lot or slip into dark areas behind the building to sneak alcohol or pot.

Several residents in houses that cannot be seen from the club’s parking lot complained about the noise. Police officers have made dozens of trips to the club and usually determined the noise wasn’t a nuisance. Sometimes they drove to Sheffield Street, listened for music, and heard nothing. Sometimes, they issued warnings. Police first cited Dreamworld in February 2001, and again in March.

Tunnell began monitoring sound levels and making trips to Sheffield Street during concerts to make sure the sound wasn’t a bother. He offered to meet with police and neighbors to discuss the issue. The only neighbors to attend were Clark and Boothe.

Tunnell beefed up insulation using Sheetrock, sand, foam, and other materials. To his eye and ear, the insulation plus the monitoring of volume solved the problem. Still, Clark and Boothe continued to complain.

Fort Worth Weekly described in a previous cover story (“The Sound and the Fury,” July 5, 2001) how Clark continuously called 911 and threatened to call the mayor and police chief if the music weren’t silenced. Clark retired in 1998 as Arlington’s human resources director after 24 years with the city, although he said that extensive tenure doesn’t earn favors at City Hall.

While being interviewed by the Weekly in July 2001, Clark was describing his displeasure about noise coming from Dreamworld when a plane flew overhead. “Like this crap here,” he said, sticking his thumb skyward at a small airplane that could barely be heard from the ground. He also complained to the city about the sound of trains that come by his house. He noted that Dreamworld patrons are teen-agers with dyed hair and pierced and tattooed bodies, and he complained that the non-alcohol club was billed as a Christian rock venue, yet painted red “like a dungeon.”

Police responded by writing noise citations to Tunnell, who refused to pay. He said he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the warehouse and had bent over backwards to muffle sound and be neighborly, yet nothing could appease Clark and Boothe.

Other neighbors who live in the vicinity of Clark and Boothe told the Weekly that the noise was bothersome shortly after the club opened but that the problem quickly subsided.

Tunnel said some police officers have told him they sympathize with him, but that they have been told by supervisors to crack down. The citations ceased for most of 2002, but police issued another on May 31, 2003. Then, on Aug. 9, just a few weeks before the trial, a police officer arrived at the club an hour after a concert had ended and issued a citation, Tunnell said. The officer told him, “I know that the show is over, but my boss told me to write you a ticket,” recalled the Dreamworld owner. At the bottom of the citation, in a space marked “Misc. Info,” the officer wrote, “Per Chief Lemeax,” referring to police Deputy Chief Kim Lemaux.

Lemaux told the Weekly she would not discuss the ticket or the events leading up to it. “If he wants to set it for court, we’ll discuss that in court and I’ll discuss it with the owner of the business, but I’m not going to discuss it with the media,” she said. “We’re not going to have a trial in the media.”

The guilty verdict was a setback for Tunnell, but he believes things are improving. Police are coming by less often and he is receiving fewer tickets than he once did. Lemaux has also noticed improvement. “The number of complaints we’ve received or the calls for service we’ve received from around the business have appeared to decrease,” she said.

Maybe Dreamworld and its critics will find peace after all.

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