By DOTTY NIST
County commissioners opted not to immediately move forward on a countywide noise ordinance but will take up the issue again on June 24.
The proposed measure drew a good bit of comment from the public when it was presented at the June 10 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Currently, three noise ordinances are on the books for areas south of the bay, one applying to Grayton Beach proper, one to Chaparral Estates, Hidden Harbors, and Holiday Shores, and one applying to the remainder of south Walton County. Currently no county noise ordinance applies to unincorporated areas north of the bay. If approved, the proposed noise ordinance would repeal the three existing noise ordinances and become effective for all unincorporated areas in Walton County.
For the existing south-of-the-bay noise ordinance, the means of determining noise as being in violation is measurement by a decibel meter. The Grayton Beach noise ordinance uses a “plainly audible” standard for determining violations. The Chaparral Estates/Hidden Harbors/Holiday Shores ordinance provides for either measurement by decibel reader or the plainly audible standard.
The proposed ordinance would use the “plainly audible” standard for determining violations, establishing a prohibition on any person “making or causing any noise disturbance that is plainly audible from within an occupied residence” other than the one they occupy.
Presenting the proposed ordinance at the June 10 meeting, Walton County Assistant Attorney Sidney Noyes described the ordinance as easy to enforce and fair, and as having “teeth.”
It is geared, she said, to people being disturbed by excessive noise while in their home. Someone experiencing this type of disturbance, Noyes explained, would be able to call the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) or Walton County Code Enforcement. The responding officer would visit the residence and issue a warning to the person responsible for the offending noise, she said. If called back for the same offense, the officer could either issue a citation or make an arrest, Noyes commented. Persons causing noise violations occurring between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. would be subject to arrest, she explained.
In the case of repeat offenses, it would be possible for a Walton County Code Enforcement proceeding to be initiated which could result in the matter coming before the Walton County Code Enforcement Board, Noyes added.
Noyes said there was a plan for the WCSO and county code enforcement to be in communication on the cases through an internal program. She clarified that code enforcement would not make arrests.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows reported that Walton County Code Enforcement operates until 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with a code officer on call on Sundays. The WCSO would be responding to noise complaints occurring in the evening, she noted.
The WCSO had been reluctant to enforce an ordinance relying on noise meters to determine noise violations, partly due to expense associated with the meters.
Meadows said she and staff had been working with the WCSO for about 18 months to arrive at a measure that they had agreed to enforce. While admitting that the proposal might need “tweaking,” she emphasized that it had been a long process to get to the point of proposing an ordinance.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander expressed concern that there might be he said/she said situations after a warning was issued.
There were several public comments against the county moving away from the use of decibel meters to determine noise violations.
South Walton County resident Mary Nielson asked why the county was not able to hire people who can “use noise meters and have them hold up in court.” Nielson complained that the proposed ordinance does not address people being disturbed when they are in area on their property other than their house, by their pool for example. “This thing is full of holes,” she said of the ordinance.
Walton County Attorney Mark Davis responded that the ordinance could be revised to apply to noises heard from anywhere within a person’s property boundary. However, he was of the opinion that the ordinance, if challenged, would hold up in court better as written.
Surfside resident Bob Sullivan urged for a look at how the ordinance would apply to condominiums.
Miramar Beach resident Sandy Luchtefeld told the commissioners that the good news with the ordinance was that it would not cost them money to pass—and that the bad news was that the county had been working on the issue for six years now.
“It needs to be handled this season,” Luchtefeld urged.
County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman, who was formerly with the WCSO, recalled responding to many noise disturbances while patrolling the streets of Walton County. The state breach of peace statute is utilized in responding to these complaints, he commented. However, Chapman could see the need for the ordinance in connection with repeat offenders in order to proceed with county code enforcement proceedings.
“You are woefully understaffed to enforce what you have,” Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne said of county code enforcement. Osborne said it is not realistic to expect the county’s four code officers to do all necessary enforcement in a county as big as Walton County. “They need authority, and they need to be available seven days a week,” he commented.
Inlet Beach resident Betty Letcher brought up the problem of different groups renting or being at the same property at various times and causing noise problems. She urged for it to be written into the ordinance that the property owner would be penalized for violations.
Another resident called for the use of noise meters to be continued. He said the only way he was able to get a problem corrected with his neighbor’s pump making noise during construction of a pool was to have a code enforcement officer read the noise with a meter and send a letter to his neighbor.
“We’re suffering on a daily basis with noise pollution,” said a Grayton Beach resident living near a bar/restaurant. She said she would just ask for the ordinance to be enforced if passed.
Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris called the proposed ordinance “less than what you already have.” “It’s not just about these party houses,” she said. “Scenic 98 is not being enforced,” Harris charged.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Anna Eby called the ordinance “too general.” She credited the WCSO for being very responsive to noise problems she had experienced with construction near her home.
With public comments concluded, Comander moved to have the legal department bring the ordinance back for the June 24 BCC meeting. The motion was approved unanimously.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and take place at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
By DOTTY NIST