TAMPA — As Hillsborough officials spent months overhauling the county noise rule, they were closely advised by two people hired by the biggest source of noise complaints: the Ford Amphitheatre.
Last year, officials formed a panel of six sound experts that included a consultant for Live Nation, the company that operates the amphitheater and might benefit if the rule is relaxed.
Aside from county officials and the experts, the only other person to attend the panel's two meetings — which weren't publicly advertised — was Live Nation's attorney.
The panel met twice, in December and June, and its purpose was to vet and recommend rule changes. The meetings weren't recorded, but official notes from both show much of the comments and recommendations came from Live Nation's consultant, Noral Stewart, and its attorney, John Fenn Foster.
The notes show Stewart was the only expert to give a presentation. Foster, who is not a sound engineer, was the first to recommend the rule's most controversial change.
That change, which county commissioners vote on today, would require officials to make recordings over a span of 10 minutes. If the average noise level exceeds 70 decibels, the county could then cite a violation.
Now, the rule says a sound is a violation if it exceeds 65 decibels, even if it lasts less than a second. Residents who live near the Ford Amphitheatre, such as Kim Ground, like it that way.
"It looks like this revision has been written by a lobbyist for the amphitheater," said Ground, who lives a mile away.
But all Live Nation did was offer its opinion, said Wilson Rogers, the executive vice president for the company's North American amphitheater operations.
"Other than having the right to make a recommendation, we've had no part in drafting the rule," Rogers said, adding that the new rule doesn't include some elements Live Nation wanted, such as a higher permitted decibel level of 77.
County officials say residents will get the same protection they get from the current rule. The rule change was drafted by the county's own $15,000 consultant, they said, and intended to make the recordings more precise so the rule can be better enforced.
Other changes, such as strengthening restrictions on lower-octave sounds after 11 p.m., provide residents more protection, said Jerry Campbell, the director of the air management division of the county's Environmental Protection Commission, which enforces the rule.
"This rule is better science that has been peer reviewed by our panel of experts," Campbell said. "Some residents perceive this as an amphitheater rule, but that's not the case."
But while Campbell and the EPC's executive director Rick Garrity say the rule wasn't changed for Live Nation, it's clear the company played a key role in recommending changes, some of which were adopted into the proposal.
The amphitheater opened in 2004 on land along Interstate 4 and was operated at first by Clear Channel. A flood of nuisance complaints about concert noise led to a county lawsuit. The case was settled with Live Nation, a company formed when Clear Channel spun off its entertainment division.
As part of the settlement, Live Nation agreed to build a massive wall to absorb noise. Live Nation completed the $2.6-million wall in 2007, and complaints dropped. But they rose again this year.
Rogers said the acoustical carpet that covers the wall wore out faster than expected. He said the company spent $60,000 to replace it this spring.
Stewart, the noise consultant, said Live Nation paid $216 an hour plus travel expenses from his North Carolina home to attend meetings in which the rule was discussed. While Stewart declined to comment further, Rogers said his consultant's objectivity shouldn't be questioned, calling him one of the most qualified sound experts in the nation.
Although they attended the panel discussions and two public workshops in which the EPC officials discussed the rule with residents, Stewart and Foster, the attorney, also met on Sept. 8 with top officials at EPC. This meeting was different from prior meetings because it included Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who is the chairman of the EPC's governing board and will vote on the rule change today.
Garrity said the meeting's purpose was to inform Higginbotham whether Live Nation opposed the rule. No notes or recordings were taken.
While Garrity and Higginbotham said it wasn't unusual for EPC staff and a commissioner to meet with a company or individual that could be affected by a pending vote, they couldn't cite another example.
Higginbotham said anyone could have attended the Sept. 8 meeting. But when asked how they could if it weren't publicized, he replied: "That's a good question."
"I don't think the county has taken the advice of any particular person over another one," he said.
Higginbotham and Garrity said the meeting was intended to inform a frequent violator about the status of the changes.
"So we don't end up in court," Higginbotham said.
But while Live Nation was invited, the county's No. 2 complaint-generator, the operator of the Green Iguana bar on Anderson Road, wasn't.
"They didn't ask to be there," Higginbotham said.
The reason for that was simple, said Alan Fosco, the bar's managing partner.
"I didn't know about it," he said.
But Fosco likes the changes and isn't complaining. Bands that play at his bar have drawn the ire of nearby residents. He said the new rule would be easier for his bar to obey.
"The adjustments are in our favor," he said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or email@example.com.