City Commission majority decides not to increase noise violation fines after all, with comprehensive Sound Ordinance revision planned this winter

Mayor and Commissioner Shaw continue to support interim changes

This photo of the Cabana Inn property was taken in October 2017 by Jose Hernandez. The Cabana Inn was the focus last year of noise complaints from nearby neighbors. Image from the business’ Facebook page

On July 20, Hagen Brody was the lone Sarasota city commissioner to vote against proposed increases in fines for noise violations. Thus, the measure passed 4-1 on its first reading.

By the time of the second, required reading — conducted on Aug. 17 — two other board members were on Brody’s side: Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Liz Alpert.

As a result, no changes will go into effect, leaving $100 instead of $250 as the fine for a first offense and $100 as the fine for a second offense, instead of $500. The new penalties would have applied if a person elected not to contest the citation in county court, the draft ordinance said.

Commissioners alluded to emails from business owners who had protested the potential increases amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, especially when bars have been shut down at the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis, and other hospitality industry venues have been struggling to survive.

“We can do a better job without casting so wide of a net that we’re going to, I think, end up with over-punishment [in many circumstances],” Brody said on Aug. 17. “I think we should really be talking about how we’re going to help businesses and bars and restaurants survive this pandemic …”

“This applies to everyone everywhere,” Alpert said of the proposed new fines. The commission should focus on fines within the context of a comprehensive overhaul of the city Sound Ordinance, she added.

City Attorney Robert Fournier reminded the commissioners that they agreed in July to have him undertake a thorough revision of the Sound Ordinance. “We’ll be coming back with that this winter,” he said, indicating his expectation that the board discussion would be a lengthy one.

When they addressed the proposed increases in fines in July, Freeland Eddie and Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch both emphasized complaints by homeowners about noise issues, especially incidents that occur at night, when residents are trying to sleep.

The Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) adopted a resolution on June 1, 2019, urging the commission to amend the city Sound Control Ordinance to raise the penalties. At that time, Fournier noted, the focus of complaints was the Cabana Inn on U.S. 41.

Freeland Eddie said on July 20 that she had heard complaints from neighborhoods other than Arlington Park, which is within close proximity of the Cabana Inn.

Yet, this week, she talked of concerns about the proposed new fines applying “across the board … for any time an individual feels that a noise is above a certain level. … I have questions about the subjectivity of how [the ordinance] could be applied.”

Further, Freeland Eddie said, “You don’t want to have an ordinance that’s so loose” that law enforcement officers would have difficulty handling complaints.

Residents urge other action

Fournier explained at the outset of the Aug. 17 discussion that he usually puts second readings of ordinances on a commission Consent Agenda of routine business items. However, since Brody voted “No” on July 20, Fournier added, he had placed the issue under “Unfinished Business.”

Further, Fournier pointed out that, as drafted, the proposed ordinance would not necessitate a $500 fine for a second offense if that action came more than 12 months after the first violation by the same person.

This is the section of the ordinance showing the proposed changes in fines. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Before the board discussion began, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs read emailed comments from three members of the public. The first, sent by city resident Alexis Upham, complained about that residents of Bay Point Park have been “robbed of the quality of life that [their] once peaceful, quiet neighborhood provided.” After 2016, but prior to the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Upham continued, “Selby Gardens began to execute its strategic objective to be a commercial attraction offering 6 private party venues, 7 nights a week,” on its 14-acre campus, which adjoins Bay Point Park. “The traffic and noise,” Upham wrote, disturb the peace of the neighborhood. “Requests, warnings and small fines have no effect.” Therefore, Upham suggested that fines of $1,000, $2,000, $5,000 and up for recurring offenses “may get the attention and correct action of repeat noise offenders in our City.”

Karen Hall, another Bay Point Park resident, pointed out in her comments that rentals of homes through online platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo.com have become more common, with examples of such houses “in every neighborhood.” As a result, Hall added, “[N]oise has certainly become an issue throughout the city.”

Fredrica Lindsay addresses the commission on Aug. 17. News Leader image

Then Hall asserted that City Manager Tom Barwin “has issued special event permits with a maximum level of 100 dB [decibels] as acceptable noise. These permits have been issued to the same applicant for weeks on end with as many as three events in a [four-day] period — while neighboring homes are as close as 140 feet away. To be clear,” Hall continued, “100 dB is equal to a jet flyover at 1000 feet or jackhammer.”
Because the city issued the permits, Hall added, the Sarasota Police Department could not issue citations to the offenders.

Hall called for a revised city Sound Ordinance that would be more effective.

Barwin did not respond to Hall’s assertions about the special events permits.

Finally, Griggs read an emailed comment from city resident Joyce Cloutier, who called for “a total rewrite” of the city’s Sound Ordinance “with citizen input to effectively deal with many complaints that have been made to the City over several years.”

Cloutier added that one-time fines for homeowners should be considered a different issue from fines for businesses “with music and noise each and every weekend …” The businesses, she wrote, “need to hurt. Otherwise it is just a cost of doing business.”

One city resident addressed the commission in person. Fredrica R. Lindsay criticized the board members for considering raising the fines for noise violations when, she said, the city has no effective enforcement. “Fines,” she added, “are a Band-Aid. … There’s no real teeth in this ordinance.”

Commission caution

As the commissioners offered their views following the residents’ comments, Fournier reminded them that the issue of raising the fines “was just a preliminary matter” before they begin a thorough review of the Sound Ordinance.

“The ordinance in front of you today,” he added, “was never intended to address [anything but the fines].”

“Those are my thoughts exactly,” Mayor Ahearn-Koch responded. “We’ve been talking about revising our Sound Ordinance for years and years and years and years. I’m going to say 10 years. … In the meantime, these are quality-of-life issues that are at hand here,” she added, with residents having sought the higher fines. “I do support going forward with this ordinance.”

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. News Leader image

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion to approve the measure on second reading. When no one spoke up to second it, Ahearn-Koch said she would do so.

Commissioner Brody maintained that no action should be taken on city noise issues without considerable public participation, including owners of businesses.

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie pointed out that much more public involvement should be sought before the board even approves higher fines.

“I think the idea of addressing this in a vacuum … puts the cart in front of the horse,” Commissioner Alpert added.

When City Auditor and Clerk Griggs called the roll, only Ahearn-Koch and Shaw voted for the motion.

Alpert then offered a motion calling for a delay in action on fines until after the comprehensive discussion of the Sound Ordinance has taken place. However, City Attorney Fournier told the commissioners no new motion would be necessary.

The 2-3 vote killed the proposed measure.

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