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Downtown’s success creates noisy problem for St. Petersburg

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown’s rapid growth has not been without tension between its residents and the businesses and events that draw exuberant crowds.

The city, which has been attempting to amend its noise ordinance over the past few years, isn’t there yet.

"There are a lot of issues. There are a lot of stakeholders who have a great interest in them," said Dave Goodwin, the city’s director of planning and economic development.

There’s the booming entertainment sector. Then there are the residents flocking to the high rises and condominiums.

"Both of those sectors are growing," Goodwin said. "They are a little bit on a collision course and we want to have an ordinance that fairly addresses the needs of both, because they are both a positive thing."

On April 12, he laid out three options to the City Council’s Public Services and Infrastructure Committee. They could endorse a more precise, science-based decibel system to monitor the noise, add progressive penalties to the current "plainly audible" system, or radically modify it by using such methods as reducing the distances used to determine noise from a particular source.

All options would require start-up equipment and personnel, Goodwin said. Noise enforcement staff would likely be civilian employees from the Police Department, an issue that raised concerns among council members because of the new requirement for police officers in schools.

Startup costs for amending the current ordinance could run about $324,852, while introducing the decibel system would cost $10,000 more.

Former Mayor Bill Foster, a lawyer who represents Jannus Live, the popular outdoor entertainment venue, and some businesses within the Jannus block, has concerns about going to a decibel system.

"I don’t want any impact on Jannus which will restrict the vibe of downtown," he told the council committee. "My client is a good neighbor. ... Most of you know Jeffry Knight. He spent a lot of money on his own sound study and he is working on using his own money to mitigate some of the issues that will keep most of the sound within the confines of the walls and not let it escape."

Foster said in an interview that his primary concern is the impact a revision to the ordinance would have on the venue.

"It’s been around a lot longer than the high rises downtown," he said. "It’s been a good neighbor, so we just want to make sure that whatever is passed by the City Council is enforceable, is reasonable and has a minimal impact on the operation known as Jannus Live."

The decibel system is tricky and doesn’t "distinguish between ambient noise and music," Foster said. "It doesn’t take a lot of other noise to potentially put one in violation. We would prefer the plainly audible. Whatever the case, Jannus is going to work with the city."

Residents have been emailing the City Council.

Noise from Jannus Live "literally makes my bedroom windows vibrate on the 31st floor," wrote Thomas M. Mistele, who lives at the Signature, 175 First St. S.

"We have to sleep with ear plugs. I have lived in San Francisco; Sydney, Australia; London; and Washington, D.C. These cities all have "vibe," but without weekly ear-splitting outdoor concerts and loudspeakers blaring from the street."

John Mason has lived downtown for 20 years. He likes the positive changes and wants to encourage them, he told the Tampa Bay Times, but is against "loud music that adversely affects others who are living in the entertainment area."

Elizabeth Brockman, who lives at Vinoy Place supports the decibel gauge.

"We all want to be able to enjoy the fantastic concerts at Vinoy Park!" she told the council. "However, when there is excessive noise, it becomes very intrusive, rattling window screens, making it impossible to sleep, listen to music or TV or even to have a normal volume conversation."

Citywide, there were 16,417 noise complaints between 2013 and 2017, with the number dropping over the years.

"The real catch is that people have stopped reporting, because nothing is being accomplished," said Dr. Mack Hicks, a clinical psychologist who leads the noise committee for the Downtown Residents Civic Association.

"The noise levels have made it very, very difficult for folks to sleep and just get along," he said, noting that February’s American Journal of Cardiology indicated that noise can cause depression, and increase cardiovascular risks and anxiety.

With more than 16,000 complaints, there have been just 99 citations, a fact that Goodwin blames on the lack of enforcement staff and the ordinance itself.

"It’s not an easy ordinance for an officer to enforce using distances of from 50 to 5,000 feet, particularly downtown, where you’ve got multiple places where noise is coming from," he said.

The decibel system, he said, means readings "are made right at the source of the noise."

Under the current ordinance, fines for a first violation is $218, the second within a year is $350 and the third within a year, $500. Any amendment should include a Noise Board and about three or four noise enforcement officers, Goodwin said.

As a start, Council member Ed Montanari would like to see simple remedies that can be immediately implemented, "to give people relief." That could mean closing a door to lessen noise or, said Goodwin, imposing progressive fines.

Council member Charlie Gerdes wants businesses to police each other.

"We all love our city....We want to keep the energy going, but we want people to be able to live here with the quality of life, as well," he said. "What I am asking is that business owners, the people who are creating this energy, please, please get together with your colleagues and talk about how we can all maintain this balance without having to be the heavy-handed government."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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