County commission considers sound ordinance

How loud is too loud?

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County may tackle that question with a new sound ordinance,
The goal of the ordinance is to balance the property rights of the receiving party that is complaining and the rights of the person who is producing the sound.

At the Jan. 10 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commissioners, officials agreed to ask Sheriff Noel Stephen for his input on whether or not an ordinance is needed. If the sheriff thinks a sound ordinance would be a useful tool that would help the deputies keep the peace, it will go to planning board for review.

At the Jan. 10 meeting, County Attorney John Cassels said there are two ways to monitor sound levels. One is to measure decibels, which requires some staff training and also requires staff to maintain and calibrate the equipment. The other is for officer to simply listen and determine if the sound is plainly audible.

Either method may be used for an ordinance.

“The sound engineer pointed out that there can be debate over what is audible vs. plainly audible,” said Mr. Cassels.

According to the staff report, Over the years, prior boards have periodically discussed whether Okeechobee County needed to consider a sound/noise ordinance for the unincorporated areas of the county. Historically, sound complaints reaching the board were few, and primarily included music from venues such as a nightclub or the County Agri-Civic Center. Following the first Okeechobee Music Festival in 2016, however, the county received an increased number of citizen “sound oriented” complaints, and as a result, the county engaged acoustical engineers to monitor the sound generated by the event and to assist in incorporating sound and time of performance limits on the subsequent festivals. This action reduced the number of complaints. The music festival experience appears to have brought renewed interest in considering the adoption of a local ordinance dealing with excessive sound generation.

Mr. Cassels said it might be helpful for the commissioners to have a demonstration from the sound engineer to hear sounds for themselves at varying decibels.

He said distance from the sound and weather conditions are factors.

“We’re also trying to protect residences,” he said. “That is a challenge. We have allowed residential single family houses to be everywhere in the county. It would be impossible to satisfy every single resident’s concerns about sound at all times,” he said.

The ordinance should dictate the distance from the property where sound will be measured, Mr. Cassels explained.

“If you have a 10-acre lot and the house is in the middle of that 10 acres, is it reasonable for someone to go three fences, two retention ponds and two palmetto patches to get to their neighbor’s lot line to be able to plainly hear it?” he asked.

He said they must also make a distinction for multiple family dwellings because some of the worst noises come through the wall as opposed to from the street.

No sound ordinance is going to fix problems with land use classifications, mixing of residential and industrial or commercial land use, “It’s not going to fix zoning issues,” he said.

“It impacts what kind of businesses you want to attract or discourage and where you want them to be.

“There is a land use component to this,” he said. “It starts with recognizing the different land use classifications we have.”

He said they also have to take into consideration the different types of sounds.

“That pulsating sound is probably more annoying than a melodic sound,” Mr. Cassels said.
Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the decibel limits should be both for dBA (A-weighted decibels) and cBC (decibels relative to the carrier).

The dBC – the base – is what really aggravates most people, said Mr. Burroughs.

Most of the loud, annoying sounds that are currently being produced in Okeechobee County are probably going to continue either because they are exempted under the ordinance, they are in the current control of one of the governments, or are critical to the community as a whole, said Mr. Cassels.

He said sounds coming from the Agri-Civic Center, the Sports Complex, Scott Driver, Okee-Tantie and other county facilities are already under the control of the county.

“You are the landlord,” said Mr. Cassels.

The county also has a number of businesses or industries that are “grandfathered in,” said the county attorney. He said the county would not make a business get rid of working equipment just to replace it with something quieter.

Special events, such as the Okeechobee Music Festival, require special use permits that specifically address sounds.

Mr. Cassels said sound ordinances also exempt a number of sounds such as:
• Railways;
• Airports;
• Household appliances;
• Lawn maintenance equipment such as lawnmowers, weed eaters, pressure cleaners, chainsaws used between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.;
• Law enforcement activities;
• Emergency signals;
• Motor vehicles operating on a right of way, so long as they are in compliance with state law;
• Refuge collection vehicles;
• Construction activities with a permit;
• Road construction;
• Scheduled athletic events in a facility that is permitted for that use;
• Fireworks in an area where fireworks are legally permitted;
• Agricultural related activities on agriculturally zoned land;
• Parades (with a parade permit);
• Rodeos (in a facility permitted for that use);
• Watercraft within federal or state law; and,
• Unamplified human voices.

If they do pass a sound ordinance, “this isn’t going to turn Okeechobee into a quiet zone,” he explained.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said he is concerned about any new ordinances that might discourage new businesses from locating in Okeechobee County. He said where he lives, it often sounds like airboats are coming into his house at 2 a.m., but that he lives with it.

Mr. Culpepper said in the case of the music festival, he was more offended by some of the language than by the sound levels.

Commissioner Kelly Owens said without a sound ordinance, when the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office has a complaint about a loud neighbor, the deputies can ask residents to turn the sound down, but don’t have a way to enforce it.

Commissioner Brad Goodbread said when they take out the events that are already exempted, he doesn’t know if they really need a sound ordinance.

“I don’t know how bad of a situation we have,” he said, adding he would like to see the data on the number of complaints.

“If the sheriff says this is a tool we need, I am open to it,” he said.

“This is a tool – it’s not a hammer, but it’s a tool – for the deputies to use if they have a resident who is uncooperative,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs.

The commissioners agreed to ask Sheriff Noel Stephen to look at the proposed ordinance and bring it back to the board with his comments. If the sheriff thinks an ordinance is needed, it will go to the planning board for review.

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