TAMPA — The World of Beer, in the heart of South Tampa’s SoHo bar district, has been cited three times this year for violating the city’s noise ordinance.
On Thursday, the bar sued to block the city from enforcing noise rules outside Ybor City, Channelside and downtown — three territories where the city was specifically given jurisdiction over noise pollution by the state law that created the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission in 1967.
The lawsuit is attorney Mark Bentley’s second challenge to the City of Tampa’s ability to regulate noise within its boundaries. In March, Bentley sued the city, seeking to overturn its June 2013 rules declaring noise from moving cars illegal if it is “plainly audible” from 50 feet away. The “plainly audible” standard was set at 100 feet.
Bentley voluntarily dropped that suit, but in the suit filed Thursday, argued that the city overstepped its authority when it began regulating noise in 1999. Bentley says only the Environmental Protection Commission has the power to regulate noise in Hillsborough County.
On behalf of World of Beer, Bentley is asking a judge to overturn a 2009 deal between Tampa and the Environmental Protection Commission that gave the city broad powers to restrict noise within its limits. That deal violated state law and enabled the city violate the First Amendment rights of World of Beer and other businesses, Bentley argues.
Bentley argues that the SoHo district is subjected to arbitrary enforcement of poorly defined rules for what amounts to too much noise. Those rules carve out exemptions for church, school and sports activities but not for bars and other businesses, he says.
Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Environmental Protection Commission attorney Rick Tschantz agreed that his agency has the power to enforce noise countywide. Historically, the commission has delegated those powers to the cities because they’re able to act more quickly and deal with noise from motor vehicles and the like, he said.
“I believe that the city of Tampa as well as every one of the municipalities within Hillsborough County does have the right to have their own noise regulations,” Tschantz said.
He declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the fact that the SoHo district has evolved in recent years into a popular venue for raucous weekend bar-hopping. More than two dozen bars and restaurants now line the street between Kennedy Boulevard and Bayshore Boulevard.
The explosion of bars and restaurants has created a fourth entertainment district akin to Ybor City, Channelside and downtown. Driven by complaints from long-time residents living on the edges of SoHo, Tampa City Council has tried tighten the city’s grip on nuisance businesses.
The “plainly audible” rule was added last summer on top of rules that specify decibel limits — limits that are different from the ones set by the Environmental Protection Commission.
Council members said the change was needed because the city has too few of the expensive noise meters for police officers to respond quickly to complaints. The “plainly audible” rules let officers use their own hearing to determine if a bar or car is too loud.
Bentley says that approach has been found unconstitutional and violates the due-process rights of businesses — like World of Beer — that are ticketed for noise.
On top of that, the density of bars in SoHo makes it nearly impossible for police officers to tell for sure where noise is coming from under the “plainly audible” approach.