Noise Ordinance Draws Loud Protest


By Pru Sowers


Changes made in the proposed sound ordinance this week didn’t seem to please anyone but the measure is moving ahead towards becoming law.




Key West city commissioners agreed to boost the allowable decibel levels emanating from bars, churches and other noise-creating establishments, angering residents who have complained about noise pollution in their neighborhoods. But commissioners also changed where enforcement officers measure the actual sound, bringing it closer to where the noise is created. That drew protests from bar owners and musicians, who claimed it would force them to eliminate live music during the daytime hours.




The proposed ordinance, which passed its first reading this week, will now go to a second reading at the next city commission meeting on April 1. If it passes there, it will become law.




As it stands now – and further changes might occur at the second reading – the decibel levels from 4 p.m. to 2:59 a.m. will be increased from 75 dBA and 77 dBC (another sound measurement that tracks lower sound frequencies) to 85 dBA and 94 dBC. While that may appear to let noise levels increase in the commercial district, a second change mitigates that, according to Jim Young, the city’s senior manager in code compliance. Where previously enforcement officers had to measure sound levels from at least 100 feet away, now they can use decibel-reading meters at the establishment’s property line.




“Now we can go right to the source,” Young said, referring to where sound level meters would be placed. “I think it’s going to help the residents and people complaining.




‘When we were running the [sound measuring] tests, we noticed we weren’t even getting 75 decibels. When we moved to the property line, we were getting 84, 85 decibels. In order to be fair, if the commissioners agreed to change it, we have to raise it,” Young added.




Another change is that sound cops only have to record decibel levels for 10 to 20 seconds, not the five minutes previously required.




While at least one bar manager, Maureen Johnson from Willie T’s, a popular bar on Duval Street offering live music, said she could live with the new rules for the 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. time period, she was worried that the allowable decibel levels for the 3 a.m. to 4 p.m. time slot will force her to eliminate live music during the day. While those allowable decibel levels also were increased – from 65 to 75 dBA – measuring sound from the Willie T’s property line would likely result in a violation, she said.




“[The decibel level] is up but they’re moving 100 feet closer,” Johnson said, referring to where enforcement officers will measure sound levels. “I can’t have music during the day. What about all the cruise ship people, the ferry people, the people walking around? They’re going to be walking around in silence.”




Violations of the new ordinance will likely be fairly stiff. The propose ordinance calls for a warning on first offense. After that a series of fines yet to be finalized would be levied. And after a third violation in a 12-month period, the establishment could lose its entertainment license for up to a year.




Public statements will be allowed at the next reading, at the April 1 city commission meeting. Johnson and other bar managers are urging people to attend to protest the proposed ordinance. But Young pointed out that his office has not received a single noise complaint since a special meeting was held on the subject in late February.




“And I haven’t heard of anybody losing their job or a business closing,” he said, referring to the dire predictions from bar and restaurant owners of the impact of tightening sound restrictions. “That tells me that if you’re a good neighbor, whether you’re a church or an entertainment establishment, you can lower the sound and still function.”


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