O'Hara Township couple makes a federal case out of house concerts | Signal to Noise | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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O'Hara Township couple makes a federal case out of house concerts

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Most of the time, when the cops shut down your house show, it's because there's a punk band in the basement and drunks spilling off your porch -- in other words, because you're doing something right. But in country-club land, it seems, you can get busted for playing unamplified folk music ... even if it generates no more noise than a backyard barbecue.

O'Hara Township residents Cindy Harris and her husband Dr. Richard Heath have been embroiled in legal disputes since 2003, over house concerts they host every few months. The township's zoning board ruled in 2003 that the donation-only concerts are "commercial," and thus prohibited in the residential area. In January 2006, the township sent a letter warning the couple would be fined $500 per violation. Harris and Heath responded with a federal lawsuit, alleging the township was infringing on their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

That case was dismissed: 3rd Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman wrote that the court was not persuaded by the "hyperbolic argument that political fundraisers, book clubs, potluck suppers ... and Steeler parties are in jeopardy," and couldn't rule on the matter until the zoning board made a final decision on the challenged ordinance.

So Harris went to the board's Sept. 9 meeting to get one.

"There's a lot of confusion about 'what's going on' at my house," said Harris, addressing the board in a bright hippie dress and sandals. She was backed by Heath and several supporters wearing "House Concerts: Legal Since 1619" buttons. Harris says her house concerts are no more disruptive to neighbors than Super Bowl parties: "If I were holding prayer meetings, would anyone be objecting?" A recent concert, she said, consisted of about 25 people holding a potluck meal and listening to musician Dwight Dillard and others until 11 p.m. The concert wasn't advertised, apart from an e-mail to acquaintances.

Neighbors say the problem is parking. "My largest concern is access for emergency vehicles," Ellen Woods testified, who said her son has frequent need of ambulances. She also said she found trash in the street after the concerts.

Harris, though, says no parking or other citations have been issued, and suspects a cultural clash is at work: "Football's OK, live music is not."

And it may not be for some time to come. At the hearing's end, board chair Russell D. Orkin advised Harris that her December 2007 concert drew no complaints: "If that worked, keep doing it." Some attendees took this to mean that Harris had lost: "So, no more concerts!" one neighbor exclaimed.

But Harris is planning a house concert in December, and if the township takes action, she's likely headed back to court. "I don't plan to stop."

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