By ALICIA LEONARD
On the morning of Jan.14 vendors and representatives of the wedding and event industry in Walton County met with local government leaders to try and start a discourse over recent breach of peace issues and possible loss of revenue for the averaged $8.7 million dollar per year industry in Walton County.
Recent shut-downs of wedding and events in the south part of Walton County has caused a backlash by those who work in the industry and have called into question which rules (Code or laws) they must follow to keep their livelihood and the industry intact and not being taken to neighboring counties.
Walton Board of County Commissioners (BCC) chair Sara Comander opened the meeting and expressed to the packed room, “I am hear to listen to your needs. I am only one of five who will be able to make changes and decisions, but I am here to help you in any way that I can. We are hear to listen and to try and work together to solve your problems.”
Chuck Hinson, owner of Hilltop Productions and H&M Tent and Party rentals, was joined by Jennifer Lewis, owner of It’s a Shore Thing wedding and event planning. They spoke on behalf of the event industry.
Hinson and Lewis outlined the amount of money and jobs the industry brings into Walton County. Lewis produced documentation providing that $7.9 – $9.3 million dollars per year in gross revenue, which in turn produced 109,200 temporary jobs (75 people employed by each wedding) in Walton County alone.
Hinson said, “This issues has become so great that many in our business are shutting their door, firing their employees and moving their business to Bay or Okaloosa County, which, by the way, are greeting them with open arms.”
Hinson went onto say that most understood that 10 p.m. was the enforcement time to shut down weddings and events, “When weddings are being shut down at three or five in the afternoon or a restaurant is under fire for having a guitar player on their deck at 9 p.m., that is when action must be taken. We are getting the worst kind of press right now. It’s brides telling other brides to ‘stay the hell out of Walton County.’ It would be nice if these brides and their families that bring so much revenue to our home here, were able to sit back and look at their wedding photos with pride, instead of sitting and looking at their paperwork with their court dates on it.”
Lewis read a letter from a bride that was devastated that her dream wedding was shut down before she or her guest were able to start the reception. The bride said in the last line of her letter, “I hope the people of Walton County can understand, that shutting down a wedding is just not about shutting down noise, it’s about shutting down a celebration on what was supposed to be the best days of our lives.” Lewis added, “My company alone has featured Walton County in more than 20 magazines nationwide. I love living here, but it is my responsibility to guide brides to a safe place, where their weddings won’t be shut down. We feel that it is unreasonable enforcement put into place. I don’t want to have to take my business to Okaloosa and Bay County, but I will if I have to, in order for this not to effect their lives or their wedding.”
The meeting then moved to the floor for comments. One parent stood up and said, “We own a business in Walton County. We live here and we wanted our daughter to get married here, but we had to have a permit for everything and we were told no music, so we took it right across the line in Okaloosa County. Basically, what would have been an Walton County event, we had to move to Okaloosa County.”
The issue between residential and commercial use of homes came into play with the next resident, “We had our daughter’s wedding in a residential home here, two years ago, because it was less expensive. If we started to utilize some of the empty buildings that are sitting there and have the possibility of bringing more revenue into the county, they would be more appropriate venues, in my opinion, and still leave us the ability to sleep at night. When we live in the most restricted neighborhood in south Walton and can’t get a good night’s sleep there, where can we get one?”
The resident then outlined another issue with residential weddings, “It’s not just a wedding. They arrive on Wednesday, there are rehearsal dinners and bachelor parties and then the D.J arrives with the music. Pretty soon you are hearing the PA system over the TV in my house, six lots down. It comes down to breech of the peace and that law is for anytime of the day. I do think we need to find a resolution and I also think there has been some false advertising, as far as some of these homes are in residential preservation neighborhoods. There are two sides to this story.”
Discussion then ensued about weddings being taken to commercial zones. Lewis replied, “There are not enough available to host all of the weddings.”
After this exchange, things got heated between that resident and a wedding-house owner, ending with Comander standing up and regaining control over the meeting and requesting the gentleman to remain respectful in his response to the resident. Comander said, “We are not here to point fingers at people. We are here to listen and try and find solutions to this issue. You don’t do that by getting ugly with a person.”
Another homeowner stood up and said, “We are homeowners at Draper Lake. We have been following this situation closely. We have been told that, just as loud as we are speaking today, is too loud. We need to decide the difference between disturbing the peace and acceptable noise levels for a wedding.”
The question of noise meters, working and or certified, as well as which laws are being enforced came up. Vendors and residents have been told of a decibel level or the shut down by ten. One attendee said, “Exactly. We are under the decibel level but being shut down for breach of the peace.”
Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) Administrative Lieutenant Keith Chamblee told the audience, “Please excuse me, but I just started on Monday. I have been reading the ordinances and from my understanding, there are two ways to determine this, by either the deputy hearing it himself or the meter. I still have more to read on this issue, so, there may be much more. To my surprise, the meter had not been certified since 2005 and it has to be certified.”
Kevin Hargett, with Walton County code enforcement, said there is a 24-hour ordinance for the county. “Typical residential during the day, it is 60 decibels for the outside and indoors is 55, between 7 in the morning till 10 at night. Residential after 10 is 50 outdoors and 40 inside for general noise other than music. Music falls under amplified sound reproduction and is a different scale. Typically, the scale we just talked about would be an A-scale. When it drops to a C-scale, which is the bass, it goes through walls, and can travel several hundred feet from its original position. That is the ones we get calls about.” Hargett said that the code department will schedule an officer to go out and take a reading if they were advised there is an issue.
Comander reminded the crowd that there was a new constitutional officer in the sheriff’s position, “I have a very strong feeling that our new sheriff will do his best to work with everyone on this issue.”
Many said that they had not changed anything, but wondered where and when the crackdown of noise began to be enforced so strongly. The question of employing off-duty officers or deputies was welcomed by many of the wedding house owners and considered a viable option by those in attendance.
Lloyd Blue, a resident, described himself as an attorney who had practiced for 30 years in Walton County, as well as one of the owners of The Red Bar. “I’ve been involved in the start of the noise ordinances in Destin and all of those in Walton County. To say the noise ordinances in Walton County are confusing is like saying the Titanic had a water leak. I’m a lawyer. I have a hard time, sometimes, understanding it.”
Blue said his problem with the ordinance regards the time of a complaint, “If it’s a windy night, the ambient noise level is higher. If you are trying to produce entertainment and music for your customers, what you can do or produce for your customers, is different on each night. Not only do we have a conflicting standards floating around in different parts of the county, we have multiple laws that are being applied and different agencies that are applying it.”
Blue said he has had multiple discussions with new Sheriff Mike Adkinson about the subject and suggested a comprehensive review with all agencies that handle noise complaints, to get an overall frame work that will work for residents as wells as brides and tourists. “Because of the zoning that was implemented in ’96 in their comp plan that they literally forced on us, we don’t have any commercial zoning in south Walton. It requires by law that residences are mixed in. Just by the unique nature in south Walton, we are going to have interaction between commercial and residential entities. The goal will be – how are we going to come and reason together and come up with something that everyone can live with? It very difficult to know how to do the right thing and in the right way, right now with the multiple ordinances and enforcements,” Blue said.
Mark Martin, from WSBZ radio, brought up the issue of Jazz Fest being moved to Bay County for 2009. “The county needs to look at the big picture of all events and the money these events bring here. For 10 years, we never had a problem and then last year we were called in five days before the event, over a law from 1979 that no one was aware of, because one person complained off the record. In 10 years, not a single complaint. My point is this. When did Walton County go from an area that supports the arts, and creativity and live music and preservation to a bunch of pissers and moaners? We grew up here, we made our life here and when my daugher got married two weeks ago, we had to take her wedding somewhere else. Bay County is opening their arms to all of our events, like you wouldn’t believe.” Martins comments drew applause from the crowd in attendance.
Another resident stood up and said, “If our county continues to lose these events, their only recourse is to raise taxes.”
Another hour of discussion ensued. Comander asked to make one thing clear to property owners, “I had my daughter’s wedding on my property and you do not have to get a permit to hold your daughter’s wedding on your own property in Walton County.”
In the end, the crowd agreed to try and find a centralized meeting spot, online or by email, and continue to work with the county commission and the new WCSO administration to try and simplify and understand the code and statutes, as well as how the issue could be resolved and the code made uniform, so all could follow the law and not fear breaking it.
Tammy D’Agostino, owner of The Eventful Planner, said after the meeting, “It was a very productive start to an issue that has to be resolved quickly. I am hopeful that the sheriff’s office, code enforcment and the local vendors will be able to find a way to make all sides happy. The wedding industry is a huge financial boost for the county and it would be a shame if these events had to moved to the surrounding counties.”