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Queen’s University faces a king-sized noise-pollution problem

The Queen’s University football team plays at Richardson Stadium. A group of residents in Kingston who live next to Queen’s University are complaining about noise pollution.

Jason Scourse

The strains of O Canada, a referee's whistle and squawks of play calling over the public address system are all the sounds that spring from live sporting events.

But for a group of residents in Kingston who live next to Queen's University, these noises have become such an annoyance that they are demanding the school silence the fanfare from its fields of play, a move that could threaten varsity athletics if the school's neighbours get their way.

"Last summer it got so loud that it would interrupt your ability to speak to your neighbour in your front yard," Rosemary Hill, a real estate agent who lives close to the campus fields on Oakridge Avenue, said in a telephone interview. "It really does interfere with your ability to live your life."

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The matter will come to a head on Tuesday when the City of Kingston will hold a council meeting where a temporary exemption that the university is seeking to a local noise bylaw is on the agenda.

Queen's is arguing that the bylaw as written is far too general in scope and does not really take into account the sounds that normally emanate from a modern live sporting event, including piped-in music to entertain the crowds during stoppages in play.

Queen's is arguing that if it does not receive the exemptions it is seeking – including the right to continue to allow referees' whistles and amplified sound during events – it will severely affect the future of the school's storied intercollegiate sports programs, which date back to 1882.

"A sports field where games are played kind of inherently needs whistles," said Leslie Dal Cin, Queen's athletic director. "And if we can't get that application to say we can use the sports fields with whistles then we really can't play on those fields. That's where our issue is in terms of the continuation of our sports."

Further to that, Queen's is arguing that restrictions around the use of the PA system would mean the university would not be compliant with hosting standards for sporting events as outlined by Ontario University Athletics, the association in which the Golden Gaels compete.

"It will be nearly impossible for Queen's to host tournaments, national championships and other high-profile events, which help build the profile of Queen's and the City of Kingston as a sports tourism destination that would draw thousands of visitors to Kingston each year," the university claims on its website.

Any moves to allow Queen's additional leeway to the bylaw are being vigorously opposed by many who live close to the campus fields, and who complain that the university has long ignored their pleas to rectify noise complaints.

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"If we don't stand up to this big bully Queen's it's going to get worse," said Hill, a resident for 12 years, who adds she can no longer enjoy sitting out in her backyard when a big game is being played on the university campus.

"This is about having to force Queen's to do the right thing – to design and operate fields that meet minimum noise standards," Susan Reid, another Oakridge Avenue resident and an employee of the university, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

The campus of the august institution is located near the heart of this Eastern Ontario city of 123,000 and nestled side by side with a number of established residential neighbourhoods that overlook the grounds of one of Canada's oldest universities.

According to Kingston city councillor Liz Schell, about 1,000 individual homes have been affected by the noise. The university, on its web site, claims that "a small number of people" who live near the fields have formally complained about undue noise.

The area residents have been at odds with the university administrators for several years – over what they say has been an escalating level of sound from the seven outdoor athletic fields, including Richardson Stadium, the 8,000-plus seat facility that opened in 1972 – is on what is referred to as the West Campus.

The complaints started to escalate in 2011 after the university installed a new artificial turf field with surrounding lights that led to heavy use, both day and night and throughout the weekends.

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"The lights on the playing fields made people's backyards at 10 o'clock at night as bright as mid-day," said Kingston city councillor William Glover.

The city ordered that the university not use the lighting system until shields could be installed to redirect the glare away from homes and onto the playing surface.

According to Schell, the biggest concern among the residents is the ramped-up music that is played during events.

"The groups that used the field used amplified music pretty much all last summer," she said. "It's caused such upset in the neighbourhood."

In its application for an exemption to the city's noise bylaw, Queen's is seeking the ability to blow game whistles, make intermittent game-related P.A. announcements and sing or play the national anthem.

And for Richardson Stadium, where the school's football team plays its regular-season games, the university is seeking the right to play music during time-outs and other breaks in the action.

Also, the university said that it will only use its athletic fields from between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"We've been working to try and find that appropriate balance between what we need in terms of sound coming from an athletic field to something that is respectful within the community," Dal Cin said. "We think our latest application, which really tries to hone in on numbers and types of sounds, finds that balance."

A staff report on what Queen's is seeking recommends that council adopt the measure.

"It's not the whistles, it's not the hooting and hollering," Schell said. "It's the amplified sound. It's a slightly elevated field and the sound just blasts the neighbourhood.

"If they do it right like they say they're going to, it should work."

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