Nearly a year after the county tightened its sound regulations, residents near Bob’s Boathouse say noise problems persist.
Last week, for the first time in more than a year, Michele Chapman had a peaceful weekend.
Chapman lives on the edge of Phillippi Creek, across from the bar and restaurant Bob’s Boathouse. From practically the moment it opened in fall 2013, the business was subject to numerous and persistent noise complaints from residents such as Chapman, who said music from the bar was regularly audible in their homes.
In March 2014, it appeared those residents had finally won a victory — the Sarasota County Commission agreed to tighten its noise regulations. The changes lowered the maximum decibel level businesses were allowed to produce from 80 to 75 dbC from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and permitted noise measurements to be taken from the residential areas affected rather than the premises of the business, in certain cases.
Those changes were at least partially effective. Houses in Phillippi Creek neighborhoods a half-mile from Bob’s Boathouse were no longer subject to the same volume, and the number of complaints in those areas steeply dropped. For Chapman and other residents in close proximity to Bob’s Boathouse, though, the problem persisted — and no reasonable decibel limit seemed adequate for providing a solution.
“We’re talking about the total devastation of lives here,” Chapman said. “This is not just a minor complaint. I don’t want this to consume us, but it’s consuming us.”
Today, the status of Bob’s Boathouse is a question mark. Over the past two weeks, the bar has been closed more often than it’s been open. After several days of closures, residents said, the business reopened for the weekend of Feb. 14. Since then, however, the doors have been closed. This has given Chapman and others a reprieve from the music that has consumed them for so long — but leaves them wondering how long that will last.
“This is an abusive situation,” Chapman said. “We can’t stop the abuse. It just keeps coming.”
Loud and clear
Earlier this month, Chapman sent a message to other residents in the area with a potential solution: implementing a “plainly audible” standard. Chapman says the decibel limits aren’t enough. Even noise that doesn’t technically violate the existing threshold, if played persistently, can be maddening — which is exactly what Chapman says is happening, particularly with the bass pumping out of Bob’s Boathouse.
"We can’t stop the abuse. It just keeps coming."
In Pinellas, Dade and Lee counties, continuous noise that is plainly audible from a certain distance — at least 100 feet away — is restricted. Although she’s advocating for that standard in Sarasota, Chapman figures the County Commission might be hesitant to further regulate sound.
The board expressed some reluctance to change its noise regulations in 2013 before a substantial show of support from residents, and nightlife districts — particularly those on Siesta Key — might step forward to oppose additional regulations.
“This is exactly the code change we need, but it appears that it will never be implemented without massive outcry from citizens,” Chapman wrote to residents.
For Jim McWhorter, president of the River Forest Civic Association, the problems Bob’s Boathouse have caused have largely passed. McWhorter lives about a quarter-mile away from the bar, and he installed $20,000 double-paned windows in an attempt to cut down on the noise before the new regulations were passed.
Still, he’s standing behind Chapman’s push for tighter regulations. McWhorter is hoping for a countywide standard of measuring volume from the complainant’s property. Currently, that only applies for areas where a waterway — such as Phillippi Creek — or other obstruction prevents a reading at the business’s property line. In almost every other municipality he’s looked at, McWhorter said the standard in residential areas is to measure from the source of the complaint.
Regardless of whether that effort is successful, he agrees there are certain cases where decibels fail to capture the whole picture.
“If the noise gets reduced in decibel terms to the most we could have ever asked for, it’s still not good enough,” McWhorter said.
On deaf ears
Further exacerbating the issues, officials have repeatedly cited Bob’s Boathouse for failing to comply with the lower limits the county has adopted. Although Sarasota County code enforcement reported no further official violations since a Sept. 14 citation, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office says the volume of complaints and written citations has been significant.
“Since last year, we’ve been out there probably close to 60 times,” said John Walsh, a captain with the Sheriff’s Office. “I would say most of those incidents have been related to noise. Since the ordinance was changed, we’ve written about 30 reports related to violations.”
Enforcement in the wake of the changing standards has proven difficult. In the first few months, Walsh said there was a learning curve for deputies assigned to take measurements. When citations have been issued, Bob’s Boathouse has (largely successfully) fought them in court — arguing that the proper initial warnings weren’t given to the manager on duty, or that ambient noise and other factors contributed to readings that exceeded the limits. The Sept. 14 citations were the first not to be dismissed by a judge under the new ordinance.
"It appears Bob’s Boathouse has a business model that doesn’t really want to work with the residents in the community it does business in."
McWhorter acknowledges that, in the wake of that citation, the business did cut down on the volume for a period of time. Still, in campaigning for tighter regulations throughout the county, he and Chapman argue that residents of any neighborhood adjacent to commercially zoned property could one day face similar issues. Walsh said that when noise issues have arisen elsewhere, the Sheriff’s Office has been able to work toward a compromise fairly quickly. With Bob’s Boathouse, that hasn’t been the case.
“We’ve been able to educate or work with the businesses and residents to try to come to some place in the middle where everybody can live and operate their businesses,” Walsh said. “With Bob’s Boathouse, we’ve attempted to do that same thing — and it appears Bob’s Boathouse has a business model that doesn’t really want to work with the residents in the community it does business in.”
Representatives for Bob’s Boathouse did not respond to requests for comment on the noise issues or the status of the business. As of Wednesday, the restaurant remained closed.
In addition to the volume of complaints, the noise issue is time-consuming for deputies because of how involved the measurement process is. Walsh estimated that the average noise ordinance investigation takes about 45 minutes.
“It’s not as simple as a deputy showing up, pulling out a piece of equipment, coming up with a number and making a determination,” Walsh said.
Drawing the line
Michelle Lee, another resident on the front line of Phillippi Creek, recounted tales of distress that mirrored Chapman’s. She says her blood pressure rises just thinking about it — when she and her husband don’t leave town to avoid the sound issues, she’s taken sleeping pills in an attempt to fight past the noise at night. Her family put their house on the market last year because of the headaches the sound caused.
Now, Lee and Chapman are trying to fight back. They’ve scheduled a meeting with County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo next week, part of a campaign to convince others that the noise issues have not yet been adequately addressed and that the plainly audible standard should be adopted.
In the back of their minds, though, they also fear things could get even worse. Earlier this month, a judge upheld the constitutionality of Sarasota County’s noise ordinance after Bob’s Boathouse owner Tom Lefevere filed a legal challenge. Even with the legal victory, they’re concerned that an appeal could bring with it a return to the status quo before the tighter regulations were passed.
“I’m tired of getting in my car and leaving,” Lee said. “I don’t want to have to leave anymore.”
BOB’S BOATHOUSE — Generating Property
Before the county passed new regulations in March 2014, noise measurements were taken from the property generating the noise.
MONTCLAIR DRIVE — Receiving Property
Although that’s still the case in most of the county, in areas where something obstructs officials’ ability to measure sound — in this case, Phillippi Creek — measurements are taken from the property receiving the noise.
Noise complaints regarding Bob’s Boathouse involve sound measurements from the property of the complainant, but for most of Sarasota County those measurements are taken from the offending property — and the acceptable decibel level at night is accordingly higher than most Florida municipalities. Here are some maximum volumes from around the state.
Sarasota County, commercial (generating)
Sarasota County, residential (receiving)
Venice, residential (receiving)
Tampa, residential (receiving)
Plainly audible at 100 feet
Miami, residential (receiving)