Kevin Burns doesn’t have the strict demeanor of a U.S. Army sergeant, even though he served in military intelligence before joining the National Security Administration.
“I’m a people person,” he said during an Oct. 8 interview with the Pelican Press. The code-enforcement officer, dressed in a black Sarasota County baseball cap and jeans with black military boots, sipped a cup of coffee at the Siesta Key Sheriff’s Office sub station.
That trait has served Burns well in his yearlong career with the county’s code enforcement department and is key in his new mission to root out weekend violations across the county.
“You don’t want to go out there and start a war,” said code-enforcement officer John Lally, who was sitting behind his own desk at the substation. The relationship between code-enforcement officers, residents and business owners starts with clear communication and building relationships, he explained.
This year, county commissioners voted to expand the 2013 fiscal year budget for overtime code enforcement during weekends, when some violations have gone unreported. The push for the expanding enforcement came partly due to Siesta residents’ complaints about noise levels in the Village, which are most prominent during weekends.
“My experience so far has been all positive,” Burns said. During his first month on the job he has conducted three decibel-level measurements in the Village without any violations. He has also started reaching out to bar and restaurant owners, residents and even tourists.
Things may be quiet on the island now, but when season picks up there will be plenty of sound complaints in the Village, Lally said.
“The relationships I’m trying to develop will pay dividends when season starts,” Burns said.
Sound versus noise
Burns’ résumé boasts stints with various intelligence agencies working with a different type of wave then the ones that splash the shores of Siesta — sound. After code-enforcement supervisor Richard Kuntz told officers about the overtime hours, Burns said he knew his expertise would be useful in the Village.
The activities that comprise the expertise and experience are classified for the most part, Burns said, but it centered on the physics of sound.
“If he told you, he’d have to kill you,” Lally joked.
The Sarasota County code restricts property owners to between 55 and 75 decibels at their property line, at various times of the day and in varying zoning districts. Some Village businesses have special exceptions that expand on time and decibel threshold in the ordinance.
Residents in the Terrace condominium complex, which is adjacent to the Village, have complained about the noise from nearby bars, and the topic has been a mainstay on Siesta Key Village Association and Siesta Key Association agendas this year. Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, a Siesta resident, has sent or received at least 10 emails about noise in the Village since February, according to the county’s public access website.
“A bar owner wouldn’t consider their music ‘noise,’” Burns said. “It’s about who receives it.”
Burns parks at the Siesta Sheriff’s Office substation and walks to the Old Salty Dog to start weekend investigations. Bar and restaurant staff have given positive feedback to him, but Burns said he is surprised at the interest tourists have in what he does.
A couple recently watched while Burns calibrated his sound measurement device, which adjusts for ambient noise before and after a decibel reading. Burns said he’s happy to explain the work to bystanders.
Despite Burns’ background, the intricacies in the municipal code are challenging to teach, Lally said. County commissioners voted to extend the sunset date of the ordinance restricting sound levels, but county staff will be holding public meetings for community input on how to change the ordinance, or craft a new one, to please residents and business owners.
“It’s just so convoluted,” Lally said.
Not just noise
Code-enforcement officers must, in a way, play the part of the “bad guy,” asking residents or business owners to “keep it down,” Lally said.
Burns works 15 hours during the weekend all over the county doing things many residents wouldn’t think about, he says. He picked up a broken television and some cans of brown paint Oct. 5, on Ocean Boulevard.
And one of the first violations Burns noticed on Siesta was vehicles parked in the right of way just over the north bridge.
“That’s going to stop,” he said.
The biggest issue facing officers is unlicensed contractors, who are active on Siesta, Lally said. If a property owner hires a contractor without assuring they have the proper credentials, they are vulnerable to risks that include a lawsuit if one of the contractors’ employees falls off a roof and sues, he said. Educating residents about the county codes is another aspect of the communication Lally and Burns foster.
About four years ago, an island property owner received a permit from the county to pare some mangroves to make room for a dock. He ended up cutting more of the protected plant than allotted in the permit, which prompted a visit from Lally. When the code-enforcement veteran informed the owner he could face fines of up to $50,000, the man said he just needed a number and he would gladly cut a check, Lally recalled.
“That was probably the craziest thing I’ve seen,” said Lally, who has worked in the code-enforcement department for six-and-a-half years.
Burns popped open the cover on the bed of his truck before heading out on inspections Oct. 8, and revealed a stack of signs of all shapes, sizes and colors — from postings for garage sales to business advertisements — that he’d picked up. On one of his rounds last month, a Siesta resident stopped and thanked Burns after he picked up one of the signs.
“That feels really good,” Burns said.
To report a possible code violation, Siesta Key residents can email code enforcement officers John Lally or Kevin Burns at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.
The Sarasota County call center, 861-5000, will direct questions, comments or reports to the correct department, Lally said.