Neighbors sue newhope church

Jan. 29, 2013 @ 06:19 PM

Nine residents of Hills at Southpoint subdivision on Tuesday sued newhope church, seeking an injunction that would bar the south Durham church from using amplified music during its services.

The state-court filing claimed the noises escaping newhope during services and rehearsals have become a nuisance that’s lowering the value of nearby homes.

Speaking through lawyers David McKenzie and Donna Ray Berkelhammer, the neighbors said there’d be no point in a judge asking for mediation of the case because a city-requested mediation attempt has already failed.

The suit in addition to an injunction seeks monetary damages to both compensate residents and punish church leaders for their conduct.

It alleges the church has refused to mitigate the problem despite having ample financial means to do so. Moreover, newhope’s leader, pastor Benji Kelley, “tried to bully the neighbors into living with the church’s noise,” the suit claimed.

Tuesday’s filing came less than a week after police gave Kelley a ticket that alleged the church on Dec. 23 violated the city’s noise ordinance.

Police have said they’ve measured sounds from the church that top the 60-decibel limit the city imposes on daytime emissions.

One officer, Marty Walkowe, reported to commanders that Nov. 4 he obtained a noise reading that peaked at 72.2 decibels. The church’s music was audible that day inside a windows-up police cruiser parked on a Hills at Southpoint cul-de-sac, he said.

Church leaders, however, say they’ve honored the law and tried to reduce emissions.

It “has been in full compliance with local and state law and has monitored all sound coming from the church to ensure compliance,” said Bill Thomas, one of newhope’s lawyers. “newhope church has been and will continue to be a good neighbor, and will respond appropriately to the complaint filed.”

Thomas added that the church “has nothing but love for its neighbors” and has taken regular noise measures at the property line dividing it from the Hills at Southpoint.

The neighbors who sued on Tuesday included Greg Prospero and Chris Peronto, the group’s spokesmen in recent discussions with the City Council.

Peronto is a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina executive, Prospero a senior account executive with Verizon Enterprise Wireless. Their fellow plaintiffs include a radiologist and a lab manager at RTP’s Bayer CropScience. The nine live in five houses and represent as many families.

They claim more than 40 other area residents have complained about church-caused noise problems. The suit asks the judge who hears it to declare the case a class-action lawsuit.

It alleges the church’s music “disrupts the neighbors’ everyday activities,” forcing them to change sleeping and other habits.

Moreover, the dispute makes affected homes less marketable because homeowners have to warn potential buyers about the church’s emissions. A recent market analysis concluded that one owner would have to knock $50,000 off his potential asking price to counter the issue.

The suit claims the noise emissions are partially a function of the design of newhope’s sanctuary. But it argues the church has the financial wherewithal – about $2.5 million in annual revenue – to correct them.

But Kelley responded to the complaints by lobbying city officials to ignore them, the suit claims.

It also says troubled newhope/neighborhood relations are nothing unique to the church’s experience in Durham. Kelley wound up in a different dispute, related to parking, in Chapel Hill in 2005 before moving his congregation to Durham, the suit says.