Neighbors: Amphitheater concerts have led to increased problems

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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RIDGEFIELD — Carol Roark has learned to adapt to concert nights at Sunlight Supply Amphitheater.

“I have a family room way in the back of my house, so I go in there and turn up the volume on the TV,” said Roark. “I stay up late and make sure I have enough beer. I have everything I need to have and just stay home.”

Roark has been in Ridgefield since 1995, and lives practically across Northwest 179th Street from the parking lot of the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. On concert nights, cars are all over her neighborhood, but it’s not the cars or even the musicians she’s trying to drown out. It’s the flaggers.

“I can hear them yelling in my house,” she said. “They’re so loud and obnoxious.”

Neighbors have had issues with the amphitheater since it opened in 2003, but a few who live close by say they feel like amphitheater-related problems have worsened noticeably in the past two years.

“They have to manage it more so it won’t affect our neighborhood,” said Ramezan Nafeie, who has lived in Ridgefield since 1975 and who has owned the Chevron station right by the amphitheater since 1981. “Our neighborhood isn’t peaceful.”

One possible reason traffic seems to have worsened for concerts in recent years is because nobody at the county was in charge of amphitheater-related issues. The county’s contact person for the amphitheater left for another job, and amphitheater responsibilities weren’t reassigned to anyone else.

Bridget Schwarz, president of the Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association, said the county didn’t realize there was no one in charge until the association reached out about a variety of issues.

“We want to make sure the county is held accountable and the amphitheater runs like it’s supposed to,” she said.

Matt Griswold, county traffic engineer and operations manager with Public Works, and Marilee McCall, county neighborhood relations coordinator, have since taken over amphitheater duties and correspondence for the county. Part of the process for Griswold and McCall was to go back through the traffic management plan, which was created in 2004. The neighbors had a role in setting that up along with officials from the county, amphitheater and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The association formed in 1999 in reaction to the county working toward building the amphitheater. The neighborhood association held its own meetings, did its own studies and worked with the county on its concerns about traffic, noise and other issues. The association tried to stop the construction of the amphitheater but was unsuccessful.

“I don’t even want to think about what the operations of the amphitheater would be like,” Schwarz said. “We didn’t stop them, but we sure made them safer.”

She didn’t hear much about amphitheater issues for a while but started to hear some grumblings from neighbors more recently. What made Schwarz start to take them seriously was the Dixie Chicks concert on July 9, 2016. She said it took her 32 minutes to travel about 2 miles when heading home. A little more than a month later, she was stuck in traffic for nearly a half-hour in the same spot while trying to get home the night of a Heart concert.

Those were the two most well-attended concerts at the amphitheater last year, with Heart bringing in 15,797 guests and 14,909 people attending the Dixie Chicks at the 18,000-capacity venue, according to last year’s annual concert event report for the county.

Griswold said one issue with getting drivers off the highway exit ramp was that the first two traffic lights weren’t in sync for a while, but that problem has been corrected. Another issue is, when people park nearby and walk over to the amphitheater, they press the pedestrian crossing button, which throws off the lights.

“It’ll correct itself eventually,” said Scott Langer, southwest region traffic engineer with WSDOT, which operates the area by the offramp. “When you have that mass of traffic, even losing one cycle really impacts things.”

At the Dixie Chicks and Heart concerts last year, the two lights right at the offramp were switched to manual instead of signalized, but Langer said he prefers the lights to remain signalized. He said it’s about keeping the vehicles tightly spaced and avoiding dead time.

“There’s a point where when you give too much green time,” he said. “There’s a point where the cars get so spaced out that you’re actually losing capacity.”

One issue neighbors have with the amphitheater is the earlier start times for concerts. In the original agreement, weekday concerts weren’t supposed to start until 8 p.m. to give neighbors a chance to get home from work and avoid the concertgoers. However, for concerts with lower expected turnout, the amphitheater can get permission from the county and department of transportation to begin earlier. This year, none of the weekday concerts are scheduled to start at 8 p.m.

Griswold said he asked the amphitheater to do an updated traffic study for weekdays so he can see how the earlier start times impact traffic.

Instead of redoing the traffic management plan right now, McCall said, it might make more sense to make modifications to it as the infrastructure changes. There’s a pretty big change coming that could affect amphitheater traffic: a new stretch of Northeast 10th Avenue and a bridge over Whipple Creek as part of work to improve Northeast 10th Avenue from Northeast 154th Street north to Northeast 164th Street.

The project is expected to be completed in fall 2018.

The bridge would allow drivers to go up Northeast 10th Avenue behind the amphitheater.

“Right now, there’s one way in and one way out,” Schwarz said. “When they have traffic coming from two places, what are they going to do? How are they going to handle that?”

Griswold isn’t sure yet and said that as the project nears completion, the county will have to figure out a plan for that.

“It makes more sense to wait until the bridge is done to completely redo the plan, so that could be included,” Griswold said. “We don’t want to redo the plan and have it out of date in five years.”

Griswold and McCall both spoke about the importance of flexibility in the plan, partially because of changing infrastructure and growing populations, but also because of increased knowledge about concert trends. McCall said they’re starting to look at the genre of artist to try and guess how many vehicles will be at the show and get a sense for what kind of traffic to expect.

The traffic management plan has tiers for how many traffic officers have to be out at the show depending on ticket sales, but Griswold said they now know that isn’t always the best indicator. Acts with younger audiences tend to have fewer cars, whether due to more carpooling or public transportation usage. According to last year’s concert report, the fewest number of vehicles parked at show was 1,030 for 5 Seconds of Summer, an Australian rock band with a younger skewing audience. That show had an average of 3.47 occupants per vehicle, the highest of any show last year.

“We’ve got to be flexible,” Griswold said. “We’re learning about the different tendencies for different bands. We’re getting better prepared. It’s a learning experience for everybody.”