By ALICIA LEONARD
By mid-November 2008, the Walton County Sheriffs Office (WCSO) had answered more than double the amount of “breach of the peace” or complaints about loud music on the south end of Walton County then the north end. There were 244 calls made to complain north of the bay and 632 south of the bay. Just for the period of May 31- Nov. 18 there were 119 north and 325 south for loud music according to WCSO acting-Public Information Officer Eddie Farris.
From upset fathers of the bride, musicians trying to make a living, disgruntled bar owners, and residents of their neighborhoods, it seems everyone has something to say about the recent shut downs and complaints being called in, focusing on south Walton. One event vendor told the DeFuniak Herald/Beach Breeze that he’s had over 13 events/weddings shut down during November and people in the business of weddings were looking for answers. Hopefully all of those working in the event/wedding industry will be getting those answers come Jan. 14. A meeting has been scheduled between the Walton County Planning and Development Director Pat Blackshear’s office and event vendors at 9 a.m. at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Blackshear spoke with the Herald/ Breeze over the issue. “First, we need people to understand that this is mainly a law-enforcement issue. With things like ‘breach of the peace,’ that is out of our hands and moves onto the law enforcement side of things.” Kevin Hargett, Walton County code enforcement coordinator, agreed, “When it comes to after-hours and there are crowds and alcohol involved, those thing have to be handled by law enforcement. You know, our code inspectors don’t carry guns and when alcohol is fueling the noise, it’s just safer. Our department and the WCSO agreed to let deputies handle them after-hours,” he explained.
Lt. Derral Skinner of the WCSO concurred, “We’ve had a lot of complaints south of the bay, from bars and restaurant to a concrete company running their machinery at 3 a.m. in the morning. People are just tired of being woke up in the middle of the night and not being able to get any rest.”
Skinner told the Herald about the difference between the county noise ordnance and the state statutes and how the latter is actually what most clubs and events are being shut down. “The county has a noise ordinance south of the bay, but we don’t have a certified noise ordinance meter anymore and there was only just a few of us who were ever certified to operate it, anyway. That is why we have gone with ‘breach of the peace,’ and before a deputy can respond to that, there has to be a complaint signed by an individual. A deputy cannot take it upon himself to do it. A citizen has to sign a complaint.”
Skinner said there were only two meters to begin with. One broke and when the re-certification ran out on the other, no one had undertaken that task of getting it re-certified. Skinner said if it was music or noise that was not audible in a public right-away, there was not a whole lot that a deputy could do about it, without a signed complaint. Dealing with the bars and such, there was not much Skinner said that deputies could do without a certified noise meter, so that brought them back to the ‘breach of the peace’ tool. With either, Skinner said there always had to be a complaint for the officer to pursue it. “We are not trying to be the noise police,” said Skinner, “but we have to respond to complaints.”
Skinner went onto say that people can call anonymously to complain about noise and the deputy will respond, but beyond investigating and maybe asking the group to tone it down, there was not much a deputy could do without a signed complaint. “We have to make contact and investigate, maybe ask them to turn it down, but unless there is a signed complaint, it ends there.” Skinner said that even without the noise meters, deputies have the ability to intercede if needed if the noise is audible 100 feet from the street. “Say you have a deputy driving down the road and the music or noise is clearly loud and audible from the street and the origin of the noise or music is 100 feet off that street, the Deputy can pull over and walk in (the restaurant or club) and ask them to turn it down a little,” said Skinner.
Skinner said the reception he receives when investigating calls is not always the warmest. “We get mixed reception. It kinda depends on where it’s at. Most will turn it down until we leave and then they turn it back up. It also has a little to do with how much alcohol has been consumed. We understand that the business involved and the bands, they are just trying to make a living. We also understand that people want to go out and have a good time, but we have to respond to all calls we receive.”
Zoning and the economy may be fueling the most recent issues surrounding noise. The wedding and bridal industry in still going strong in south Walton. Many second-home owners have found that in the downturn of the rental industry, the wedding industry is still moving full steam ahead. One time vacation homes are being rented out to large wedding parties, increasing complaints from neighbors who often wake up to find themselves and their driveways blocked in by those attending the special event. This begs the question of when does a home rental become a commercial enterprise, because weddings are being held on the property every weekend?
When this question was poised to Blackshear, she replied, “We in no way want to impede the economic engine that is the wedding and rental industry here in south Walton. We will strive to work with everyone and we hope that some middle ground can be found, that we can all agree on. That is what we are looking for, a middle ground, that everyone can live with. We hope we can talk and find that middle ground during the meeting scheduled in January. It more like an information session, where we can discuss and possibly find solutions that will fit for everyone. But, first and foremost, we are public servants. We are here to serve the public and will do everything in our power to uphold the trust that the public puts in us.”
Blackshear added, “I want to personally thank Lt. Skinner. He has been very responsive and has worked with our department to separate some of these issues and help us define what falls under our code ordinances and what falls under state statutes where some complaints are concerned. He has been a great help.”