Noise ordinance moving forward – slowly

Historic City News can report that, although its not final yet, the leaning of commissioners expressing their opinions seems to favor a lessening of restrictions to homeowners and a tightening of restrictions on nuisance sources of noise in St. Johns County.

Following an early draft of a noise ordinance for St. Johns County that was presented in a workshop by Assistant County Attorney, Erica Moore, on January 19th, county staff, commissioners and law enforcement have all heard from residents concerned about the county’s number one quality-of-life issue; noise.

Both Moore and County Attorney Patrick F. McCormack remarked more than once that the County will never draft a “perfect noise ordinance” — a sentiment also expressed in the previous workshop.

Today’s morning session, which ran until 1:00 p.m., heard from a number of public speakers; either for or against a noise ordinance with teeth, depending whose ox was being gored.

Public speakers from Ponte Vedra Beach and Commissioner Jay Morris were concerned about noise in the Fairfield area where sound travels across water from restaurants and property leased for weddings and other events — especially those staged outdoors.

One volunteer at St. Augustine Wild Refuge spoke in defense of complaints publicized before today’s meeting regarding the “roar” from a fully grown lion kept on their property — saying that cats instinctively sleep twenty out of every twenty-four hours. “Constant roaring is an exaggeration,” she said.

Several elderly residents of the Pacetti Road area had a different story to tell. One wept openly when she related coming home to find vultures and vulture waste all over her roof and drive — vultures who she said have appeared because they are attracted to the meat left in the open for animals in the refuge.

Commissioners heard from legal staff and debated between themselves, point by point, not so much about what constitutes a violation, but rather over who will be exempt from any new ordinance once it is enacted.

Commissioner Sanchez expressed strongly his concerns that nothing in the ordinance be used against farmers, construction workers, or others who bring jobs to St. Johns County but can generate noise either before or after any arbitrary time designated to be “quiet”.

Attorney Sid Ansbacher, representing Hydro Aluminum, explained that his clients already have done what they can to minimize noise at their plant; citing an investment of some $3 million dollars to buy buffer lands as well as an additional 7 figures in sound abatement design and construction. Sanchez agreed with concerns that noise incidental to the operation of the Hydro plant might trigger fines under a new ordinance. “We don’t want to do that,” Sanchez said.

Commissioner Morris joined Sanchez in objections to proposed language that might adversely impact the Northeast Florida Regional Airport at St. Augustine, including activity by Northrop Grumman — the airport’s largest tenant. Commissioner Miner pointed out that he was aware that the airport authority was aggressively pursuing regional airlines and an expansion of US Customs operations, all of which will require aircraft testing and flights — some of which will necessarily be conducted at night.

Miner, a former CSX employee, also expressed concern over any restrictions that might be applied to railroad service; saying that those are exclusively the domain of the federal government.

At one point the commissioners found themselves splitting hairs over noise made by chickens and whether or not the ordinance should treat large farms in the county the same as farmers who raise poultry and keep farm animals only for their own use.

Through all of this sometimes emotional testimony, Moore continued to come back to the fact that government trying to legislate what “noise” could be made and what “noise” was to be prohibited, places commissioners squarely on the horns of a First Amendment Constitutional dilemma. One example made by Moore addressed the possibility of one religious group who may have a carillon of 23 cast bronze, cup-shaped bells in their bell tower as opposed to another religion whose “bells” are actually computer generated and amplified tones. Another example was a “street preacher” who may want to use an electronic megaphone to express his religious beliefs … whether you cared to listen or not.

So, for all the effort, Moore said she thinks she has a better feel for the direction the commission is headed and that she continued to advise them that if they are going to move forward with an ordinance whose measure is not “decibels” of sound, but rather the standard of “plainly audible”, they should stick “absolutely as close as possible” to the tested case; DA Mortgage vs City of Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County, 486 F.3d 1254 (2007).

In the tested case the “plainly audible” standard was upheld on appeal. A provision of the Miami ordinance provided that “unnecessary and excessive” noises were prohibited within 100 feet from the source; between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

McCormack says he feels confident that legal staff is on the right track since they have relied heavily on the framework of a case that has survived judicial review at the appellate level.

Additional work will continue, on the staff level, with amendments, alterations, additions and deletions as indicated by the Board. The ordinance will likely return in the next four weeks.

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