Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 21, 2021
It’s not over until the fat lady sings — but hopefully, not too loudly.
At their April 20, 2021 Regular Meeting, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) once again considered options with respect to crafting a new ordinance that would allow live music performances to continue in close proximity to other businesses and residences in downtown Fernandina Beach. Once again, proponents of live music congregated with signs outside City Hall to protest any measure that would kill live music downtown. Once again, Commissioners restated their commitment to keeping live music venues and musicians in business downtown.
Nine speakers addressed the FBCC, almost all of whom opposed the introduction of decibel meters to monitor sound levels against a city mandated limit. Defining an acceptable sound level seemed to be exceptionally problematic, when factoring in ambient sounds, weather conditions and ricochet amplification. Given that the ordinance would apply throughout the City monitoring and enforcement seemed open to many problems. The sentiment expressed seemed to reflect a desire to resolve noise complaints more informally through compromise.
Proprietors of two of the most popular downtown music venues — the Green Turtle and the Boat House — spoke to efforts they have taken or are about to take to minimize sound spillover to residences, the Hampton Inn and City Hall.
Voting decibel meters down; back to plainly audible
In a reversal of their previous votes, the FBCC rejected proposed Ordinance 2021-14, which mandated the use of decibel meters, on a 3-2 vote, with only Mayor Mike Lednovich and Commissioner Bradley Bean continuing to call for decibel meters.
Commissioner Chip Ross (seconded by Vice Mayor Len Kreger) moved for a revision that would return prior ordinance language supported by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court. That language stipulated that for a violation to occur, the sound must be “plainly audible” at a specified distance from the source. Other revisions to the previous ordinance followed the City Attorney’s advice to remove content specific language that had made the previous ordinance unconstitutional (citing church and political activity).
Ross emphasized that the FBCC would be able to revisit the Ordinance if problems continue. “If there hasn’t been a problem in 3-6 months and everyone can get along together, problem solved,” Ross said. “Otherwise, we are just a solution in search of a problem.”
Commissioner Bradley Bean offered two amendments to the Ross/Kreger motion. The first would include the original list of exemptions. Bean was concerned that without specifically citing the mills as exemptions, the phrase “industrial users” was too vague and might subject both Rayonier and Westrock to noise complaints. His second asked that the physical limit be extended from 100 to 150 feet from the source for a sound to be subject to complaint. Both amendments were accepted.
City Attorney Tammi Bach explained that she would work on language to address Bean’s concerns about exempting the mills, but that might not include the original language for exemptions, as he had requested for legal reasons.
The amended motion passed on a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Lednovich continuing opposition. He claimed that without a means of measuring the sound against a standard, the City was going back to the situation that had caused the problem to arise in the first place. He noted that the Boat House, directly across the street from City Hall, had significantly lowered the level of music amplification once the City had begun discussing implementing sound meters.
Ross countered the Mayor’s arguments by pointing out that the City seems to go through the exercise of questioning the validity of a noise ordinance every time a new music venue opens downtown. He produced a slide showing the number of complaints over the past 5 years. “We are a city of 12,000 people,” he said. He added that there are lots of different noise complaints throughout the city while the FBCC only seems concerned with one venue. “Most people try to get along. They don’t call in complaints every time they hear a noise.”
Lisa Finkelstein, Executive Director of Fernandina Beach Main Street, has been working with downtown businesses and music venues to come up with a greater understanding of the problem and some ways to create a more peaceful coexistence with residents.
The current problem arose with the opening of the Boat House Restaurant. Chet Huntley, co-owner of the Boat House, appeared before the FBCC for the first time. He explained measures that he is taking to reduce the sound impact of his performers on the neighborhood. He has ordered and will install an industrial “Acoustifence” to help reduce sound overflow to his next door neighbor’s residence. However, Huntley indicated that this is just the first of three phases of sound mitigation that he is pursuing.
The parties suffering the greatest impact from the Boat House music have been City Hall, the Hampton Inn, directly across the street, and the private residence of the Acosta family that abuts the Boathouse property on S. 2nd Street. Ms. Annette Acosta in addition to dealing with the loud sounds emanating from the restaurant, also appears to have been targeted for abuse by patrons of the restaurant, who have thrown bottles and other debris into her yard.
City Attorney weighs in
Commissioner Chip Ross asked City Attorney Tammi Bach for her opinion. Bach said that she was City Attorney when the FBCC decided to abandon decibel meters and adopt the plainly audible standard in 2010. “The plainly audible standard is still upheld [by the courts],” she said. “There are practical problems with enforcement with decibel meters, and there are legal problems with it.” She cited input from speakers who questioned what a safe decibel reading would be.
“In my opinion,” Bach said, “this dispute is not going to end with the adoption of sound meters. It will continue. Everybody will download a sound meter to their phone and go in seek of readings. I think it will be difficult for the Police Department, and for the Legal Department, there will be challenges. I recommend we keep the plainly audible standard.”
The amended, revised Noise Ordinance will return to the FBCC for a Third Reading on May 4, 2021. Meanwhile, the City has no Noise Ordinance in effect.