By Faith Ross
City Resident and Former Musician
April 19, 2021
Editor’s Note: Faith Ross is a resident of the historic district and is the wife of Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Chip Ross.
Recently a City resident from the middle of the island called me stating she was happy she didn’t live downtown with its noise issues. I explained that City residents may not fully understand the impact of adopting a new decibel-driven noise ordinance (DDNO). I have had some experience with noise ordinances, sound limiters, and noise meters in another state. So perhaps all citizens may want to consider some of the unintended consequences of adopting a set DDNO.
About four years ago the City increased the density of the Commercial district to 32 residential units per acre downtown. More residents (rather than tourists) would support shops and restaurants and commercial property owners would gain more revenue with added residential rents. As a result, newly constructed townhouses and condos offering rooftop patios are presenting new noise challenges with more housing placed so closely together. With permitted decibel readings of 80 dbs, a next-door neighbor’s rooftop noise will likely not be tolerable to the next-door neighbor’s rooftop. Worse yet, where does an officer measure it from? And from which point on the whole communal property line?
A more recent trend, and interesting City challenge, is the increased sale of downtown and City properties to couples in their late 30’s and 40’s+ who have come from out of state to escape Covid lockdowns. From California and other states, our new residents work from home. It is difficult to explain to a boss that the neighbor’s or bar’s music can’t be turned off in the midst of a work Zoom or Skype meeting. Working across different time zones further complicates evening hours of video conferencing. Do we want to nurture this cottage industry of at-home digital commerce or not with intrusive workplace noise pollution?
Another City trend offering challenges is the appearance of more tricycles and play toys in the front yards of downtown and other residential homes in the City. Young families have found they can work from home. Unsuspecting parents are about to get an awakening with a neighbor’s 65 to 80-decibel music when trying to put infants and young children to sleep at night.
“Takings” litigation is no a new trend in Florida, however, with the number of wealthier residents arriving, “taking” property owners’ quiet enjoyment of their property likely needs to be taken seriously. Developers have repeatedly told Conservation Land advocates to “buy” the land if they want to take development rights. There should be no deviation from that policy. I will remind everyone that the Green Turtle bought the Florida House (or vice versa) over the noise issue.
A few years ago, a City resident reported a neighbor who had cut down large oaks without a permit. The neighbors retaliated with loud electronic music. With our existing ordinance, the police were called and the noise ended. With this in mind, I hope we are all prepared to understand the implications of allowing 80 or 90 decibel music to be “legally parked” in front of all of our homes and businesses. Any vehicle parked within a City right of way could sit for hours on end, with the windows rolled down, and pump 80 decibel music into your home. (Check it out, download a free sound meter app onto your phone.) How long would you and your neighbors last? Any neighborhood with a sidewalk would also be subjected to the same abuse day or night. No officer could be called for relief, the offender would meet the decibel limit.
If one bar and two restaurants with a noise problem can’t buy out the neighbors, simply buy “house-owned” noise limiters for the musicians’ amplifiers. They aren’t expensive. The musician’s contract needs to state that they are not going to be paid if they exceed 65 decibels at a neighboring property line. This does not mean the music is limited to 65 dbs coming out of the speakers. Just walk to the neighboring property line, hold your meter up, and adjust the amp’s sound limiter level to read 65 on your meter at the property line. The sound is much louder inside the bar’s property for patrons. The contract also needs to state that the musician pays the fine for the violation. Noise limiters have been used elsewhere successfully since the 1990’s. This is not new technology.
In closing, most professional musicians (and I was one of them at one point) used to believe that everyone was entitled to their own taste in music. Obviously, when you go to a restaurant or bar with music, you leave when you don’t like it. Residents and businesses don’t get that choice when the neighbors’ music penetrates their space. Professionals also respect the fact that everyone likes different types of music. As professionals, we understand that not everyone likes what we perform, from religious music, opera, jazz, to hip hop, we get it. Some people aren’t in to what we do. And musicians are also the first people to tell you that it is pure torture to listen to music that you hate for hours. Businesses and neighbors are not any different.
I would hope that 1 bar and 2 restaurants would not be permitted to determine the level of noise/sound that an entire city of 12,000 residents should tolerate. Nor should 3 businesses or a next-door neighbor inherently dictate the type of music that we must listen to in or at our homes and businesses. For ALL City residents and businesses alike, with a new decibel driven ordinance, the question needs to be answered, “How much music or noise do you or your children want to hear from your neighbors, whoever they may be? And for how long?”