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Not quite holy communion 

Drunken weekend nights at Nipomo Catholic church rile neighbors

Drinking, yelling, blaring music, and drunk driving at church? By neighbors’ accounts, the Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Nipomo rivals most nightclubs on weekends. But those same neighbors don’t want to be a part of the party.

The Sunday services aren’t the problem. Semi-weekly events in the church’s event hall, however, have irked at least 37 people who live nearby. They signed a petition, circulated by Nipomo resident Ed Kister, which states that nearby homeowners want the church “to stop all noise, drunken, raucous behavior and loud music coming from the dance hall adjacent to the church.”

Neighbors call it a dance hall, but they’re probably the only ones. The hall is rented for such events as baptisms, weddings, and quinceañeras, explained Kevin Drabinski, communications director for the Diocese of Monterey. Regardless of the name, what neighbors describe sounds less like a church and more like a scene from Dazed and Confused.

Booming bass reverberates through open doors and echoes down the quiet suburban streets. People mill in the parking lot, blasting music from car stereos and boom boxes. There’s drinking: inside the hall and out. Then, the neighbors allege, the drunken partiers hop in their cars, maybe spin a donut or two, and go screeching down the road.

One of the petitioners, Gary Ward, said he occasionally sees someone picking up beer cans from the church parking lot in the morning.

The descriptions seem fantastic, or at least a bit embellished. But half a dozen people agree on the details.

Maria Quintana, a 20-year resident and member of the church, was one of the few neighbors who said there was no problem. She signed the petition but said she changed her mind.

“I was thinking about it and it’s not really, really noisy,” she said.

Kister may not be the only one with complaints, but he has been the most vocal. He complained to SLO County supervisors that there are still problems, despite calls to the Sheriff’s Department.

“To our dismay the dance hall next to the church is loud, abusive, and has raucous behavior going on,” he told supervisors. “The drinking is unacceptable. The drunken driving is also unacceptable.”

That’s about all he would say publicly. Kister was reluctant to speak further, fearing his comments would hurt talks with church management.

“We all want to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting together and talking.”

Still, Kister and other neighbors have been able to make enough of their own noise to get attention. Church officials, neighbors, sheriff’s deputies, code compliance officers, district Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, and someone from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) will all meet next month. The meeting is in response to the petition, Achadjian said, even though he had not personally been aware of any complaints during 10 years as a supervisor.

Some neighbors said there have been problems for more than a decade. Ward said it didn’t used to be a problem, back when the only weekend activity was bingo.

Kister, however, has lived in the area only since June. Commander Brian Hascall of the SLO County Sheriff’s Department said the majority of about six noise complaint calls came from Kister.

“It just seems recently it’s become more frequent, I guess you could say,” Hascall said of the complaints.
   Robert Olshaskie is the supervising investigator for the San Luis Obispo division of ABC, but he hadn’t heard of any alcohol-related complaints about the church. The only issue might be whether alcohol permits should have been required, Olshaskie said. At the time he had just started digging through ABC’s records to see whether there might be any violations.

Some neighbors seemed vindicated that their complaints were being taken seriously. They seemed even more thrilled that someone else, namely Kister, has taken center stage.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one,” Jelmer Dorreboom said.

Phil Burchfield, a local realtor who sold a property near the church, said the previous owners didn’t say anything about a noise problem. Not long after his clients moved in, Burchfield said he got a call from irritated new homeowners. “I’ve been over there … and it’s pretty ridiculous.”

It’s a situation that seems to have escalated further than it ever should have. Even the term “dance hall” shows how little communication there has been. Drabinski called it a parish hall that is never a public dance spot.

“I’m happy to say that … there is vigor in the community and occasionally we do dance and we think that that’s a good thing,” he added.

Better communication between concerned neighbors and the church might solve the problems, Drabinski recommends: “We are literally a couple hundred yards away from each other and a phone call away from each other.”

Contact staff writer Colin Rigley at [email protected].

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