MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Members favor changing the noise ordinance to make it easier to prosecute cases when the music coming from the clubs is too loud.
TAMPA - A jet engine registers 120 decibels on a runway.
The sound of a whirring office fan: 40 decibels.
Somewhere in between is Ybor City on a rowdy night.
That uncertainty of where exactly the popular entertainment strip falls on the the decibel meter sparked a lively meeting Thursday night at City Hall among a crowd of more than 100 that included club owners, musicians, DJs, police officers, sleep-deprived dwellers of the nearby Camden Apartments and experts with degrees in fields like audiology.
After four hours of debate, City Council members voted 4-2 to direct city attorneys to amend an ordinance that prohibits clubs from registering more than 85 decibels. Police measure sound now by pointing a hand-held meter at the club from the middle of a street.
The amended ordinance, which is scheduled for an Oct. 23 public hearing, could make violations a criminal offense and would allow officers to measure the noise by standing at the property line, a difference of about 20 feet.
A lot could be riding on those 20 feet.
Police say Ybor gets so loud because clubs regularly exceed 85 decibels.
"Cops can't hear anything, it's so loud," said council member Rose Ferlita, who pushed for tougher noise restrictions. "It's tough for them to communicate, and it damages their ears."
Clubs refuse to turn down the noise, even when they're warned by the officers, Ferlita said. She recounted a recent trip with an officer who told a DJ to turn the music down. Instead, the DJ told the crowd that Tampa's finest was spoiling their fun.
"He was trying to incite a riot," Ferlita said.
But city officials have had difficulty prosecuting cases because the meters often record noise from the crowd and other clubs when they are used in the middle of the street. The city has had to drop two recent cases because the recordings were believed to be too inaccurate.
West Palm Beach scrapped its meter system last year because it lost challenges to its ordinance. Now that city - along with New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans - measures sound audibly, without a meter, by standing 50 feet from the clubs. The decision to charge a club with a violation is at the discretion of the officer, the standard being whether the music interferes with a normal conversation in the street. Club owners and their employees, however, say the noise level is fine now, and that any changes will muzzle the clubs, forcing some out of business.
"The energy comes from the music," said Ken Grossman, general manager of Empire. "By turning the music down, even a little, the voices will be heard above the music and you'll lose that energy."
Renovating the clubs so that they generate less noise could cost between $30,000 and $50,000 for each club, according to a flier handed out by Grossman. Live bands would be eliminated, risking an industry that he said brings in $20-million a year in cover charges and bar tabs.
Rob Smith, a DJ, said dancing could even be imperiled.
"If you turn the music down, no one will come," he said.
Council members John Dingfelder and Kevin White voted against amending the ordinance. They said they favored a compromise that would have police measure club noise from the curb, which in Ybor is about 9 feet from the property line.
"At the property line, that's at the window," Dingfelder said. "Let's back it away to the curb. That's a little more fair and you still know where the noise is coming from."
Assistant City Attorney Cathleen O'Dowd, however, said the meter recordings from the curb would be more inaccurate than the readings from the property line. Council members Mary Alvarez, Shawn Harrison,and Chairwoman Linda Saul-Sena sided with Ferlita.
- Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org