Township Board of Zoning Appeals— Chappelle shows granted variance
- Published: August 19, 2020
The Miami Township Board of Zoning Appeals gave the green light Thursday night, Aug. 6, to comedian Dave Chappelle and his team to continue presenting shows at a rural property north of the village.
The ticketed events, which began in June and have continued two to four nights a week, fall outside the agricultural zoning designation of the property owned by Steve and Stacey Wirrig, according to Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf. The shows, which typically feature nationally known performers in addition to Chappelle, are presented at a pavilion built by the Wirrigs in 2017.
Informed early last month that the activity was in violation of the township’s zoning code, Steve Wirrig applied July 15 for a temporary use variance from the zoning appeals board. The board’s decision last week came at the conclusion of a public hearing conducted online through the GotoMeeting website.
Nearly 190 people logged or called into the hearing, with about 40 giving testimony for close to two hours before the appeals board members went into executive session for their deliberations. The board is allowed to enter into a closed session when considering such matters because it is acting as a “quasi-judicial” body, according to the Ohio “sunshine” law manual. One caller challenged the legality of board members deliberating behind closed doors, but a representative of the prosecutor’s office confirmed that the action is allowable.
Despite the objection about process, the general mood of the hearing was cordial and non-combative. The early part of the proceeding, however, was made difficult for participants by competing noises from callers who didn’t mute the microphones on their personal electronic devices. Testimony was frequently interrupted by side conversations and a variety of home and car sounds from those listening in, with zoning appeals board Chair Cathy Balas repeatedly asking callers to mute their mics. Apparently, the meeting’s online host, Miami Township Trustee President Chris Mucher, didn’t have the ability to do so administratively on his iPad. With several callers offering technology advice through the meeting’s chat feature, Zoning Inspector Zopf was able to mute the disruptive callers.
Steve Wirrig and legal counsel David Montgomery, who chairs the real estate department with the Dayton-based Pickrel, Schaeffer and Ebeling law firm, thanked Zopf and the prosecutor’s office for working with them through the variance application process.
Chappelle, who lives in the township with his family, did not offer testimony, and his presence on the call was unknown, though his wife, Elaine, was listed as logging in.
In his testimony, Montgomery noted that event organizers were committed to adhering to the parameters of the request, which included scheduling no more than four performances a week, not extending the series of shows past Oct. 4 and capping attendance at 400 patrons per event. He also said a variety of COVID-related safety protocols would remain in place, including a health screening of all patrons, a mask-wearing requirement and the physical distancing of seating.
In addition, Montgomery spoke about the importance of spaces that support the arts, especially amid the current pandemic.
“We’re living in extraordinary times,” Montgomery said. “Most people are not living their lives in any normal form.” There are cultural and psychological benefits, he said, in having “some controlled and certainly safe outlets for artists and the community to get out.”
While the first events were by invitation only with ticketing through the Eventbrite website, recent ticket sales have been through the Ticketmaster public purchasing service. Tickets have been sold only in pairs, with the cost for two rising over the summer to $450 for two tickets this week, when musician John Mayer shared the bill. Comedians who have reportedly joined Chappelle in performances have included Michelle Wolf, Donnell Rawlings, Mo Amer, Jon Stewart, David Letterman and, last week, comic Louis C.K., who has been widely ostracized after admitting to accusations of sexual misconduct. A July 4 lineup reportedly included singers Erykah Badu and Common, comedian Tiffany Haddish and actor Jon Hamm.
For his part, Wirrig said he hoped the appeals board would allow him to continue “to share a beautiful existing space” in an endeavor that is featuring “the best comedians in the world.”
He also highlighted the COVID-19 precautions being taken and said that the safety plan had been “reviewed by Gov. [Mike] DeWine’s office before the first show.” A request for confirmation from the governor’s office was not answered before press time. Calls to Greene County Public Health also were unanswered this week as Public Information Officer Laurie Fox is on vacation. Last month, Fox had said she didn’t know how the shows could circumvent the governor’s restrictions on large gatherings, but she also said the health department hadn’t received any complaints about the events.
Most callers offering testimony, including a number of neighbors to the Wirrig property, spoke in favor of granting the variance request.
Also entered into the record were 460 emails and 40 statements sent or given to Zopf prior to the hearing. He said that while the large majority were in favor of granting the variance, some of the concerns expressed included noise, lighting, traffic, litter and profanity by on-stage performers. He added that another complaint was that neighbors had not been consulted before the shows began.
He also summarized the support statements, which asserted that the performances help local businesses, offer wanted entertainment, are safe and represent freedom of speech and assembly.
While access to the pavilion is off Meredith Road, the property’s address is 4866 U.S. 68, adjacent to the Young’s Christmas tree farm. Neighbors from both roadways offered testimony, with the predominant issues cited being noise, lighting and traffic, echoing the emails and statements received by Zopf.
Most of the neighbors, however, expressed full support of the events, which they said provided not only an economic boon for the area, but also enjoyment and hope amid difficult times. Even those who have been disturbed by noise that sometimes “rattles the windows,” or worry about their children’s safety with the increased traffic, said they see benefit in the events and don’t want to shut them down; they just want their concerns to be addressed.
Neighbor Jeannamarie Cox, who is the director of Yellow Springs Community Foundation, offered a positive take.
“I live on Meredith Road and have for 27 years,” she wrote in the meeting’s chat feature and said in spoken testimony. “I hear every event from my porch, from my bedroom and my living room. What I hear is economic juice being poured into our community. We are very lucky to have this opportunity — most communities would be thrilled to have one of these events. As an immediate neighbor of the events and community member, I support a temporary use variance.”
Sue Dillon, who said she lives “literally 1,030 feet from the pavilion,” added that she and her husband also “support Steve in this endeavor.” She added that attending a performance with her grandchildren had made her cool in their eyes.
Other callers of note speaking in favor of the variance included Yellow Springs Village Manager Josué Salmerón and comedian Mo Amer, a frequent performer. Amer spoke positively about the performance experience and the safety precautions taken.
“This is going to be talked about for many years to come,” he said.
He also noted the positive economic effect of performers and patrons coming to town. A resident of Houston, Texas, he said his wife has spent time and money in local shops when she’s accompanied him here.
A number of out-of-state patrons also spoke about spending money at stores, restaurants and B&Bs after coming into town. Points of origin that were named included Maryland, the Carolinas, Florida, Connecticut, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and throughout Ohio. In addition, production workers are coming in from Columbus and Cincinnati. No speaker expressed concern about visitors traveling amid the pandemic.
A partcipant from Flint, Mich., said that he’d made the four-hour drive to Yellow Springs three times this summer. He said that Dave Chappelle is more than a popular entertainer. “For me as a Black man,” Chappelle has something important to say to the nation at this time in our history, the caller said. A tape of one of the earliest pavilion shows, which was posted online by Netflix and shared widely through social media, addresses the police killing of George Floyd. Last October, Chappelle was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which is considered the highest award in comedy.
In addition to highlighting their joy in attending a performance, many commentators praised the COVID-19 related safety measures taken at the shows.
Brian Wentzel, of Xenia, noted that the precautions taken could be a model for other communities thinking about presenting events during the pandemic.
A caller identifying himself as David Crawford, from South Carolina, agreed. Crawford said that he works for a nonprofit organization that takes terminal and sick children to Disney World, and that the safety protocols he’s observed in attending five shows this summer will help inform his group’s efforts.
In granting the variance, the appeals board set two conditions: the first stating that the applicant make an effort to reduce the noise level of the events, and the second calling for the owner to meet once a week with neighbors to hear their concerns.
In addition to Chair Cathy Balas, zoning appeals board members are Barbara Krabec, Geoff Garrison, David Neuhardt and Richard Silliman. Thursday’s decision was 4–0, with no vote from Garrison who had not had a video link to the call and did not respond after board members returned from executive session.
Asked for comment about the ruling, Steve Wirrig replied this week that he’d said everything he wanted during the hearing.