By DOTTY NIST
The first noise ordinance applying to all the unincorporated area in Walton County has been approved by county commissioners.
The decision took place at the July 8 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Annex.
In response to public comment, the ordinance had undergone some changes since first being presented. It had previously been discussed at the June 10 and June 24 BCC meetings.
Prior to approval of this ordinance, three noise ordinances had been on the books for Walton County, including one applying to Grayton Beach proper, one applying to Chaparral Estates, Hidden Harbor, and Holiday Shores, and one applying to the remainder of the county south of the bay. As originally proposed, the countywide noise ordinance would have repealed and replaced those three ordinances.
The noise ordinance as presented on July 8 did not repeal the latter ordinance (Ordinance 2003-09) but did repeal and replace the other two. Sidney Noyes, assistant county attorney, explained that the new ordinance would maintain this current ordinance, while adding new provisions to assist the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) in efforts to combat noise disturbances, particularly during the evening hours.
“I think they can work well together,” Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows said, speaking of the two ordinances.
Since the approval of the south-of-the-bay noise ordinance in 2003, challenges have been faced in connection with its enforcement. The ordinance relies on noise meters to determine noise violations. Currently only one code officer is trained to use a noise meter, and the WCSO has resisted the use of noise meters, partly due to the expense of acquiring the meters.
In addition, a significant number of noise complaints have involved disturbances occurring in the evening, and Walton County Planning and Development Services Director Wayne Dyess has been reluctant to send unarmed code officers out to deal with complaints involving parties where people are likely to be intoxicated.
The WCSO has agreed to assist with noise complaints of this type with a “plainly audible” standard in place.
The July 8 proposal provided for the continued use of meters by county code enforcement officers to determine noise violations in response to complaints involving sustained mechanical or construction noise. Such a procedure has been reported to have worked well in the past.
“We think this represents a very workable situation…we’re comfortable with it,” said Major Joe Preston of the WCSO of the proposed course of action.
Noyes was frank to say that the proposed ordinance would not address the situation of people being disturbed by noise while outside their homes. She advised that, in order for the ordinance to be deemed constitutionally valid, it was necessary to limit it to apply to noise sources capable of being clearly heard 25 feet or more from the boundary line of the property from which the sound originates. Noyes commented that 25 feet was “on the low end” for noise ordinances.
Camp Creek resident Bob Brooke expressed concern about townhomes that are less than 25 feet in width. Noyes responded that the 2003 ordinance could cover many such situations, although possibly not every one.
Mary Nielson called the 25-foot provision “a serious issue,” particularly since the Walton County Zoning Board of Adjustment has often approved requests for setback reductions. Nielson told the commissioners that she would like them to have an outside attorney review the proposed ordinance to see if the two noise ordinances could be defended in court.
Preston commented that the proposed ordinance had been modeled on some in the state that had proved successful, while conceding that there would be more difficulty enforcing two rather than one noise ordinances. Preston added that there had been more incidences of noise complaints south of the bay but that the WCSO had received noise complaints for areas north of the bay as well.
Tami Reinhart, a local disc jockey, questioned whether a countywide ordinance was needed when noise issues were, in her opinion, very localized. She called for the ordinance to provide a mechanism for people falsely accused of noise violations to defend themselves and their right to work.
South Walton County resident Karen Bennett asked the BCC to look at fines included in the proposed ordinance, which she called “crazy.” Bennett also objected to the ordinance holding owners of rental homes responsible for the action of renters. She called for the county to educate renters on the noise ordinance by putting informational stickers inside houses as is done in hotels.
Inlet Beach resident Betty Letcher countered that there is a “wedding house” around the corner from her home and that the owner of that house should be liable for disturbances caused by renters. Homes referred to in this manner are those rented out short-term that are often used for wedding receptions and similar large events.
Letcher maintained that it is the owners of rental homes who should be responsible for educating their renters on requirements with regard to noise. She also argued that if Walton County had a business license, the county would know that homes used in this manner were businesses.
Walton County Code Enforcement Officer J.C. Alford commented that taking violations before the Walton County Code Enforcement Board is an option with this ordinance, as are violations of other code provisions.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows motioned for adoption of the proposed ordinance and for a discussion of the 2003 ordinance to be scheduled for a future BCC session.
The motion was approved unanimously.
The ordinance provides for a noise violation to be dealt with either as a civil infraction or a criminal offense. The qualify as a criminal offense, the noise disturbance must have occurred between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“Noise disturbance is defined as “any sound of a continuous duration which disturbs the peace, quiet and repose of any other person of reasonable and ordinary sensitilities.”
The “plainly audible” standard used to determine noise violations is defined as a noise “that can be clearly heard by a person using his or her unaided hearing faculties twenty-five (25) feet or more from the property line from which the sound emits.”
The ordinance prohibits a person from making or allowing any noise disturbance that is plainly audible from an occupied residence other than their own.
A written warning by a code officer or law enforcement officer is required. For civil infractions, violations by the same party after a warning are subject to a $500 fine.
For noise violations occurring between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., violations occurring within 24 hours of the issuance of a warning are to constitute a criminal offense, to be prosecuted in the manner of a second degree misdemeanor.
The ordinance holds property owners or their agents as responsible parties in instances of noise violations caused by renters unless “all reasonable and lawful attempts” have been made to abate the sound, including removal of the renter directly causing the disturbance.
Exemptions are provided for noise from emergency and sanitation vehicles, construction/maintenance projects, back-up alarms, military operations, aircraft operations, industrial or agricultural uses in properly-designated districts, authorized school events, and permitted outdoor events between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. within a land use classification where such permitted events are allowed.
Noise from properly-permitted construction operations, or those for which no permits are required, is also exempt between 6:30 a. m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday. This is under the conditions of all equipment being operated per manufacturer specifications and uses and with its manufacturers’ mufflers and noise-reducing equipment operating properly.
By DOTTY NIST