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St. Petersburg's stiffer noise penalties are a product of the city's success

ST. PETERSBURG - The dream, they say, is "live, work, play."

It's a sure bet that at every apartment building groundbreaking or company headquarters ribbon cutting, a city official or community leader will invoke the phrase. It's practically the slogan of St. Petersburg's growth.

But what happens when one person's play disrupts someone else's life? With downtown's residential population exploding alongside its lure as an entertainment destination, the City Council tried again to strike a balance recently when it voted unanimously to add sharp teeth to the city's noise ordinance.

Now, the city can suspend for 30 days a perpetually noisy business' right to sidewalk seating or to sell alcohol after midnight. Though it hopes it never has to.

"I believe the penalties will serve as a deterrent," said Council member Gina Driscoll, who represents downtown, where some of the noisiest bars are located in close proximity to condominium towers and apartment buildings. "I hope that's how it goes. Because my intent is not to penalize businesses or put them in a bad position financially. My goal is to keep the violations from happening in the first place."

Perhaps surprisingly, the new ordinance was supported by most of the business community - the very group it's supposed to regulate.

"Downtown is an amazing balance of things going on," said St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Steinocher, who endorsed the ordinance at the May 16 City Council meeting. "And our businesses are trying to honor those who chose to live here."

The noise ordinance has evolved. The limit used to be based on decibels. It was tweaked in 2000 to limit the vibrations from bass.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Noise complaints build with downtown St. Petersburg nightlife

The big change happened in 2008, when it was transformed from a decibel system to one that relied on sound being "plainly audible" at certain distances and times.

It was adjusted again in 2016, requiring businesses with sidewalk cafes to mount speakers so they face down and away from residences.

None of those changes alleviated the concerns of residents, said Mack Hicks, 84, a retired clinical psychologist who lives in the Cloisters, a condo tower at 288 Beach Drive. Hicks, a proponent of strengthening the ordinance, said he hasn't been personally affected by nightlife noise, though friends in his building and elsewhere have been suffering from sleepless nights as bar noise radiates up to their units.

Hicks, who is involved with the Downtown Residents Civic Association, called it a health and quality of life issue.

"The analogy I use is second-hand smoke," he said.

Those bothered by the noise complained, a lot.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Downtown's success creates noisy problem for St. Petersburg

From 2013 to 2017, the city received 16,417 noise complaints, which is almost 3,300 a year on average, or almost 10 a day. That includes complaints about loud homes, vehicles, construction and businesses that aren't bars. The numbers did trend down over time, though it's unclear if that's due to the 2016 adjustment to the ordinance, according to city development official Dave Goodwin. Driscoll said the reduction could also be that residents felt their efforts were futile; over that 5-year period, police only issued 99 citations.

The latest round of discussions began about 2˝ years ago after someone complained, again, to the city. Since then city officials have held five large meetings and 16 smaller ones with community members, and the City Council discussed the issue five times in committee.

Council members had to decide among three approaches: The first would update enforcement. The second option would have reduced the distance beyond which it would be illegal for sound to emanate. The third would have converted the whole system back to one based on decibels.

Hicks said the civic association wanted a return to the decibel system, saying it would be the most accurate. City Planning and Development Services Director Liz Abernathy said the equipment and training would cost the city more than $300,000, and there could be other legal issues.

City Council went with the first option, leaving the rules untouched and targeting the weak enforcement.

Now, businesses that violate the ordinance will first receive a written warning. The second and third violations with a year of the warning will be $500 fines. The fourth violation is when the big changes kick in: The city now has the option to suspend the business's sidewalk cafe permit or late-night operating permit, take the business to court or demand a plan to mitigate noise in the future. Businesses will have an opportunity to appeal.

"We do want to ferret out any of our bad actors," Steinocher said.

The ordinance also calls for businesses that wish to build an outdoor seating area within 1,000 feet of homes to develop a noise mitigation plan.

Driscoll expects the number of complaints to initially go up as residents are emboldened by the change. After that, she guesses, complaints will drop.

Police handed out 15 violations in the last year. Two downtown bars - Park & Rec, on the corner of First Avenue S and Fourth Street, and Tryst, on Beach Drive - were among those cited. Former Mayor Bill Foster, who as a lawyer represents Jannus Live and businesses on the Jannus block, and former Council member Karl Nurse both said Tryst has had trouble abiding by the noise ordinance for a long time.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Petersburg ramps up penalties for violating noise ordinance

Driscoll said residents in the Snell Arcade, at Central Avenue and Fourth Street and across an open field from Park & Rec, have complained.

Tryst owner Wasim Nabulsi and Park & Rec owner Stephen Schrutt both did not know the details of the new penalties before told by a reporter. They said they'll try to work within the rules.

"We are 100 percent committed to not violating city ordinances," Nabulsi said. "We do not want to bother the residents."

Nabulsi added that music is critical to what draws people to his business, and downtown.

"By the same token, I don't want to see residents that are not hospitable to our growth or our business."

Schrutt, whose Hunger + Thirst Group also owns restaurants The Avenue and No Vacancy, agreed. He said it's the vibrant energy downtown that is attracting investment from businesses and developers. But, he also said he doesn't want to anger the neighbors, who are his customers.

Such are the tensions when the goal is live, work, play.

"It's all growing pains," Goodwin said. "Success has happened, so it's adapting to that level of success, is what we're all doing."

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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