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Sarasota tightens restrictions on car music volume

Vehicles' speakers audible from more than 25 feet away would be subject to enforcement under revised ordinance.

Changes in the Sarasota city noise ordinance will prohibit audible amplified sound from inside motor vehicles from traveling more than 25 feet.
Changes in the Sarasota city noise ordinance will prohibit audible amplified sound from inside motor vehicles from traveling more than 25 feet.
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During the past 18 months or so a lot of noise has been made at City Hall about noise, prompting the Sarasota City Commission to consider new action to ensure the ease of enjoyment of homeowners, particularly downtown residents living within earshot of entertainment venues.

In February the City Commission directed City Attorney Robert Fournier to revisit the city’s noise ordinance. The action was prompted by late-night loud music emanating from downtown dining and entertainment venues, specifically El Melvin on Main Street, disturbing residents of condos above the street.

Although the El Melvin matter appears to have been voluntarily mitigated by the restaurant, the city attorney's office has been working to ensure the future peaceful coexistence of businesses and residents. 

When cracking open an ordinance for review, though, everything is fair game, including perhaps the historical legal application of the word “normal.” 

During his review of the city’s noise ordinance, Fournier plucked two pieces of low-hanging fruit for the commissioners to consider, saving the complex matter of decibel levels and the problematic enforcement thereof for a later date. 

On Monday, the City Commission considered two housekeeping items related to the noise ordinance: enforcement of amplified sound emanating from motor vehicles and how noise citations are adjudicated.

First was setting the baseline for loud vehicle speakers, as commissioners unanimously approved rescinding the city’s standard of plainly audible from 50 feet away from the source to the state statute distance of 25 feet. The city went with its own local ordinance in 2012 after the Florida Supreme Court invalidated a state statute over a constitutional technicality — exempting such amplified sound for commercial and political reasons.

If it’s about safety and nuisance, the court reasoned, then the statute should apply equally.

"Two years ago the Legislature finally corrected the deficiency in the statute, and so we can now return to enforcing the statute,” Fournier told commissioners. “We don't need a local ordinance to address the subject matter that these provisions apply uniformly statewide.”

That means, once approved on second reading, the Sarasota Police Department can now cite window-rattling, music-blaring vehicles that may be heard from a distance of 25 feet. 

The second unanimously approved ordinance shifts the adjudication of all noise citations from the county court to a special magistrate, whose decisions may be appealed to the county court. The special magistrate, Fournier said, would allow for more convenient scheduling for both law enforcement and violators and save on court costs.

Beyond practicality, that discussion prompted a debate over the phrase “normal sensibilities.”

“I just have a question about the language,” said Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. “It says, ‘or endangers the comfort, repose, health or peace of a reasonable person of normal sensibilities.’ My concern is about the words ‘normal sensibilities.’”

Pledging to seek alternative terminology before the ordinance returns for a second reading, Fournier said “normal” is a long-accepted legal standard.

“You have to have a standard there that would it bother a person of normal sensibilities as opposed to a person who is hyper-sensitive, which wouldn't be fair to the violators because you could get someone who just can't take any noise at all," Fournier said. "You have to have some standard there that's reasonable that wouldn't be offensive to a person of normal or reasonable sensibilities.”

With the agreement of Commissioner Debbie Trice, Ahearn-Koch said her point was to carefully select language that incorporates sensitivity toward those with disabilities.

“Generally under the law, the reasonable man standard is usually how things are judged,” said Mayor Liz Alpert, an attorney by trade. “Would a reasonable man of general sensibilities be offended?” 

Ahearn-Koch said “reasonable” would be preferable to “normal,” leaving Fournier to find an inoffensive word that would also hold up to legal scrutiny.

Trice asked Fournier about the next level of enforcement should a violator not be able to pay the resulting fine, citing the example of an individual blaring a boombox in a residential neighborhood.

“If someone can't pay the fine then they should be careful not to violate the ordinance, so that's my first recommendation,” Fournier said.

Steering the discussion back to the matter at hand, Alpert reminded commissioners that the bulk of the revised noise ordinance will be back before commissioners later this year.

“Essentially, this is not what this is about because we will be going into the sound ordinance later. This is basically about changing it to the special magistrate.”



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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