LONG BEACH — Before Robbie and David Soltz moved to within 100 feet of Marine Stadium three years ago, they asked their real estate agent about speedboat racing.
They were attracted to the neighborhood, they said, because of its clean air and quiet nature. If those qualities were to be compromised by the periodic staging of noisy speedboat spectacles, they said, they would rather settle somewhere else.
But the Soltzes were assured by both the real estate agent and the owner of the house they were buying that such events were a thing of the past. Although the city-owned stadium had indeed once been host to frequent major boat competitions, they were told, those days had ended in 1978. That was when the city, under pressure from disgruntled homeowners, adopted a strict noise ordinance that, in effect, had transformed the stadium from a speedboat-racing Mecca to a less-intrusive haven for water skiers.
So the couple moved in, confident that they had found a quiet place to raise their growing family. Imagine their surprise, then, when the races returned with a vengeance last Thanksgiving weekend after a hiatus of a decade.
"It was really unbearable," recalls Robbie Soltz, 34. "The dog was screaming and running around. The baby couldn't sleep. You couldn't have a conversation in the house. The first day we just hung around. The second day we had to leave."
Assuming that the race was a special one-time event, the Soltzes held their peace when it was all over. Recently, however, they learned that yet another, even bigger, speedboat spectacle is planned for this weekend. So they have joined with some of their neighbors in a public outcry that must seem like deja vu to longtime residents.
On one side are homeowners who maintain that the resumption of racing constitutes a change in the stadium's use that requires an environmental impact study and public review. On the other are city officials who say that the use is not new and for the most part does not violate the local noise ordinance.
Ironically, the thing that made the renewal of the argument possible was a noise-reducing technical development: the invention of a special muffler capable of subduing the admittedly monstrous sounds of the 1,500-horsepower flat-bottom "K-boats" that travel at speeds of up to 140 m.p.h.
Those mufflers weren't available in 1978. As a result, according to Rob Kolbeck, coordinator of this weekend's event, most of the big boats had to go elsewhere to race when the city adopted an 85-decibel noise limit for Marine Stadium after a year of intense lobbying by local homeowner groups.
Because the boats could not be operated at that level--slightly less than the sound of a moving freight train from a distance of 50 feet--they began holding their races at other locations, Kolbeck said. One of the most popular sites in Southern California was Orange County's Irvine Lake.
But in 1985, reacting to a series of boating accidents at the lake, the Orange County Board of Supervisors banned speedboat racing there. So race promoters like Kolbeck began looking for alternative sites. "People in Southern California deserve to see boating at its best," he said.
Last year, Sundown Marine--a Huntington Beach boat distributor with which Kolbeck works--approached Long Beach officials with the idea of resuming the races at Marine Stadium, a mile-long channel stretching from just southeast of the Colorado Lagoon to the Long Beach Marina. Equipped with bleachers and surrounded by sand, the man-made marine stadium attracts little wave action, making it perfect for speedboat racing.
City Worked With Racers
For several months city officials worked with the racers on using mufflers to reduce sound levels to the 85-decibel limit. And last Thanksgiving weekend, Kolbeck said, the company staged a trial "modified" event involving 10 boats and about 2,500 spectators.
According to Michael Little, an operations officer for the city's marine bureau who was on hand in November to measure sound levels, there were seven instances throughout the weekend of boats exceeding the 85-decibel limit, a number he does not consider inordinate. Although no fines were issued, Little said, in each case the violator was grounded for the rest of the day.
Despite 15 to 20 complaints regarding the noise, Little said, about 80% of the people he heard from after the event said they enjoyed it and thought it was good for the city. In addition to realizing profits from concessions, he said, the city collects a rental fee of $1,500 per day for stadium use on weekends and $700 on weekdays. Based on the evidence, he said, his department granted permission for this weekend's event, which is being promoted as "Sundown's Spring Shootout."