The Amphitheater Next Door 

A Kensington resident just wants to have 250 friends over for a backyard concert

Kensington's Coventry Road is a shaded, twisty lane that winds its way along the Contra Costa side of the canyon formed by Cerrito Creek. It's a quiet neighborhood where custom-built houses from fifty years ago stand guard over multi-lot parcels; a place where deer graze in well-tended gardens and where the narrow asphalt road can often only allow one car to pass at a time. There are no sidewalks here; there are no block parties. Residents value their privacy, their views of the bay, the woodsy setting. For years, the affluent families in these houses have hosted dinner parties and political fund-raisers attended by the hoi polloi -- and there were few complaints, even though the natural acoustics of the canyon mean you can often hear your neighbor sneeze. But now there's a noise battle brewing here -- and the only thing both sides can agree upon is that this isn't your average NIMBY spat.

Other neighborhoods may fight about tree maintenance, undergrounding of wires, and monstrous new homes -- but what the members of the newly formed Coventry Road Neighbors Association found in their backyards is a 250-seat amphitheater. Neighbors say that the owner's plan -- to sell tickets for fund-raiser concerts in the amphitheater that could include food and alcohol sales -- amounts to a commercial activity that is inappropriate for their quiet neighborhood and would bring a host of noise, parking, lighting, and other problems. But the amphitheater's owner, Danny Scher, counters that the county cannot outlaw his proposed use of his own property without threatening the legality of every Tupperware party, benefit ball, and political fund-raiser on the block.

How did there ever get to be an amphitheater in this secluded enclave in the first place? The history of the spot is of more than casual interest; Scher argues that since an amphitheater on this spot has been used continuously since before local zoning laws were written, it should be granted "legal nonconforming use" status -- in other words, it should be grandfathered in. The property was owned by the Hildebrand family for over sixty years before Scher bought it in 1988. The multi-lot site he purchased already included a natural bowl -- a hillside curved in the shape of an amphitheater in which the Hildebrands had built a stage (the daughter of the family reportedly held dance performances there). The site was also used for weddings and anniversaries. Scher, a former concert producer for Bill Graham Presents, says the existence of the amphitheater was one of the reasons he chose to buy the house in the first place. Moreover, in the thirteen years he's lived there, he's held many events, including fund-raisers and concerts, and says he's never had a complaint from neighbors or law enforcement. He claims that the changes he's brought to the site are only improvements to an existing open-air venue. "All I did was clean up the yard," he says, "and in the process planted a lot of shrubs and trees."

Neighbors see it differently. Where once there was a rickety, rough-hewn stage and a grassy, overgrown hillside, they say, there are now seven rows of stone-paved seating, stairs and pathways, extensive lighting, and electrical outlets on a new wooden stage to allow amplified music. "I live on the uphill side, on a lot that was once adjacent to that property," explains neighbor Toni Folger-Brown. "My home was built by my parents in 1937 and I was born here in 1942. Joel Hildebrand built that stage for his daughter to do modern dance in the 1920s, and then there wasn't anything there for a long time after that. There was a fireplace, a stage, a volleyball court -- it was a family recreation area. I don't know for a fact that the Hildebrands never held a fundraiser there, but there were no events that anyone ever noticed."

In fact, Scher himself has held events that nobody seemed to notice at the time (although now some residents claim his parties have always been a thorn in their side: "A couple of years ago, he had a concert of zydeco music, and I happen to like zydeco," says Folger-Brown. "But you could hear it, and you could hear the announcer shouting joyfully, and the audience responding. If this goes on a long time, and you want to watch a baseball game or whatever, it's annoying."). But what really got neighbors' attention was the extensive improvements Scher made to the site in preparation for a concert he hoped to hold in May to benefit the Parkinson's Foundation. "[Scher] had told us he just wanted to build a small amphitheater, maybe two or three rows of seats, and have some small performances, and we were generally supportive of that, because we thought people should be able to do what they want to do, and he has a big yard," says George Kwei, whose long driveway brushes right up against the back of the stage. "But in the last three weeks of construction, he removed all the bushes between our yard and his, and that's when it really struck us -- this has gotten large. There were workmen up in trees putting wires in. It's something that might be a lot nicer downtown, not in a residential area."

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