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Noise ordinance takes center stage in St. Andrews

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How loud is too loud?

PANAMA CITY — The age old question, usually fought over between parents and their children, has taken hold in St. Andrews: How loud is too loud to play music?

The issue has become a serious headache for the business owners, the neighborhood residents and the Panama City Commission over the past few months.

Police frequently are being called over certain businesses, most notably Little Village and Los Antojitos, playing music the business owners feel is a reasonable volume. Matt Harbison, owner of Los Antojitos, even has a criminal charge pending in court for violating the noise ordinance, after police said he “knowingly, willingly and intentionally” violated the ordinance after being warned.

Several homeowners in the area, some of whom have lived there for years, said the noise has become excessive, forcing them to crank up the volume on their televisions to drown it out. One woman, Peggy Watkins, has said she feels the new volume is impacting her health and makes her hesitant to have her grandchildren over.

And in the middle of it, trying to play arbiter, is the Panama City Commission.

The noise ordinance in the city is “confusing” and “not working,” as Commissioner Jenna Haligas said Tuesday, when for the third meeting in a row the public comment period became a discussion on noise levels.

The ordinance says it is unlawful to play music that is “plainly audible” by a person of normal hearing facilities “at a distance of 200 feet or more from the real property line of the source of sound.”

While the ordinance does have provisions for what decibel reading that would be if the noise were formally measured, decibel readings aren’t used for enforcement purposes in Panama City, as the police officers aren’t certified in the necessary equipment and don’t currently carry it. Right now, they would need to call in Bay County Sheriff Office deputies for help, which Police Chief Scott Ervin said they could do.

But for now, it falls back to the concept of “plainly audible,” which some are saying is too subjective — “the law is vague, up to interpretation; it’s not fair. ... Our lawyer feels like he can prove it’s not constitutional,” Harbison said — and others feel is perfectly clear.

“This is not so much a problem with the ordinance not being clear; I believe it is clear,” resident Cindy Warriner said. “I think the problem is this ordinance is just recently being enforced.”

After almost 40 minutes of discussion and multiple speakers coming forward, the commission took the stance Tuesday that the ordinance needs work.

In fact, behind the scenes the commission has been working on a new ordinance for months, trying to find a solution that will be a compromise for all sides and be enforceable. Neither side is pleased with how long the new ordinance is taking, and some residents don’t think one should be drafted at all.

 

City attorney Nevin Zimmerman said the city was close to creating a draft ordinance, but the work was delayed when he received instructions to look at what Pensacola is doing.

When pressed by the commission, Zimmerman said he could have drafts to the commissioners in a few days with a few options. One would focus on how to regulate the entertainment districts of downtown and St. Andrews versus citywide, and another would rely on using decibels. He said it would take more time, but he also could have one based on Pensacola’s ordinance, which has no specific stipulations except that it can’t be “excessively loud” from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Commissioner Mike Nichols — who reportedly has told residents Los Antojitos is trying to be a “nightclub, not a restaurant” — said the restaurants have made some efforts to lower the noise and said he understands the noise “will get under your skin.”

“We want to pass something that is going to be fair to you (Harbison) and fair to the citizens as well,” Nichols said. “We want to do it right the first time and look at everything. There are going to be parts you aren’t going to like.”

When there is a draft ordinance, Nichols said he will take it to St. Andrews for more feedback.

In other news, the commission voted to:

• Hire GAC Construction to demolish the shotgun houses the city purchased on Washington, Roosevelt and Carver drives for $53,000. The idea of saving one for a museum — a request residents had made early on, but which fell by the wayside — was briefly considered before Commissioner Ken Brown put his foot down.

“We don’t need that,” he said. “We got enough history in Glenwood. The ground is soaked with blood. We got it. Some of that we don’t need.”

He said the houses weren’t a true shotgun, as they have side rooms and reflected “bad” history. If a shotgun house is needed for the museum, he said the city should get a real one.

• Lift the 1997 ban of skateboarding south of 15th Street, east of Mulberry Avenue and west of Magnolia Avenue.

When lifting the ban, the commission warned skateboarding still is not allowed in the road, and skateboarders cannot grind on or destroy public property. Mayor Greg Brudnicki said skateboarders should police themselves and report “knuckleheads” to law enforcement.

A request for proposals to build a skate park is expected to go out next month, said interim city manager Jared Jones. Part of the request will be determining where the park should go. Its budget is $250,000.

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