Couple work with county to keep house concerts alive
Neighbors clash with Birdhouse owners over frequency, size of events
Four years ago, when David and Kerry Eldridge opened the doors to the Birdhouse, their house-concert venue in Forest Ranch, they were overwhelmed with positive emotions and experiences. They began to attract widely known musicians to play the intimate space and entertained a couple dozen friends and fellow music lovers several times a year.
Last October, they hit a bump in the road. A number of neighbors had gotten tired of the concerts and the traffic they invited onto their private, gravel road and penned a letter to Butte County inquiring about use permits for the gatherings.
“Fire safety is our primary worry,” the letter reads. “The public traffic going to Birdhouse events is also a nuisance.”
Marsha Christopher wrote the letter with her husband, Dan, and it was signed by eight other neighbors. The Christophers live off Crown Point Road, which cars must use to get to the Eldridges’ home on Blackberry Road.
“Drivers create unsafe conditions on our private roads because most of them drive too fast for the conditions,” the letter continues. “They habitually get lost and end up trespassing on neighbors’ properties.”
The letter caught the attention of Butte County’s Code Enforcement department, which alerted the Eldridges that their house concerts did not meet zoning regulations. If they wanted to continue to hold concerts, they’d have to apply for a permit, they were told.
“A couple of neighbors complained, so the county came out and basically said we had to stop. There was no zoning for public or quasi-public events in the mountain-timber area,” explained Kerry Eldridge by phone this week. “We asked, ‘Can’t we just entertain in our home?’ Their [Code Enforcement’s] problem was the size and frequency of the events.”
The Eldridges were holding six to eight concerts each year, she said, and although most people carpooled, there could be up to 20 cars driving the two miles on rough, gravel roads to their house for each show. In response, the Eldridges canceled a couple of shows scheduled for the Birdhouse and moved one to Augie’s Fine Coffee & Tea in Chico. That was OK, but the ambiance just wasn’t the same, she said.
“We held a workshop with Joe Craven. There were 10 to 15 people there,” Eldridge said in response to neighbor assertions that she and her husband continued to host concerts after they were told not to. “The county did come out and saw what was going on. It was not a concert, just a workshop. As soon as we were told we were not allowed to continue, we have not had a concert since that time.”
In response to neighbor concerns and the county’s order, the Eldridges have worked with county planners to draft a land-use ordinance regulating house concerts that could be added to the 2030 general plan. In essence, it defines house concerts as events with 51 to 75 guests happening seven to 12 times per year. Anything smaller or occurring fewer times per year would be considered a private gathering and not require regulation.
“We began the process of defining what our rights are [as property owners] and what the threshold is for when the county needs to get involved,” Eldridge explained. The goal for the Birdhouse, should this ordinance pass, would be to fall under the threshold of requiring regulation.
That’s not good enough for some neighbors, however. Many of them, like Deanna Leah, started out attending the concerts, which were a great deal of fun. Then, one night as she was walking back to her house, she took note of the cars as they passed her on their way home.
“I thought to myself, ‘I love these shows, but they don’t belong here,’ ” Leah said. “We have no control over how people drive. But I own my land, and this is a private road—it’s part of my deed.”
She’s concerned that, in the case of the Birdhouse, if the county weighs in it will be dictating what she can or can’t do on her private road, which is paid for by herself and neighbors in the form of monthly road-maintenance dues.
“We all chose to live in this private, rural, mountain area on a difficult road,” Leah said. “We pay the price for that. To have something like that [the Birdhouse concerts] going on just doesn’t fit.”
Marsha Christopher goes a step further in suggesting that, if the county does approve a house-concert ordinance, it remove the threshold that would allow smaller concerts to be considered “private gatherings.”
“I sincerely hope the county eliminates the gray area of private gatherings,” Christopher said. “I truly believe that house concerts should be considered commercial ventures. They should be required to get a permit. The permit process works—and it allows for public input.”
The Eldridges and their neighbors—and anyone else who is concerned or interested in the ordinance regulating house concerts in Butte County—will be able to voice those concerns to the Butte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Dec. 6), when the matter will be discussed.
“I agree with Kerry when she says that whatever they [the supervisors] decide will have far-reaching effects,” Leah said. “We need to take a good look at the precedents we’re setting.”