BROOKSVILLE — What if a key county rule slipped away silently because the County Commission didn't make it enforceable?
The effect, so far, has been pretty much silence.
During a workshop last month, assistant county attorney Jon Jouben noted that Hernando County can no longer enforce its noise ordinance and he asked the board for direction on how to proceed.
He was responding to a request from County Commission Chairman Jim Adkins months earlier for ways to put teeth into the ordinance after constituents complained that they were not able to get reported nuisances quieted.
The ordinance has two tests for violation. One deals with loud vehicles that produce "clearly audible noise,'' but in May the 2nd District Court of Appeals determined that standard was unconstitutionally vague.
The second test covers other sounds. Depending on the land use category and the time of the sound, it sets the allowable level of decibels, a measure of the loudness of sound.
That's where the enforceability becomes even more of an issue, because the county's only decibel-measuring meter is broken.
Commissioner John Druzbick added a further complication. "We don't have the personnel to enforce it,'' he said during a July meeting.
As Jouben explained, the courts are reluctant to enforce noise restrictions during daylight hours. But at night, when people complain about their peace being ruined by neighbors revving up vehicles or turning up stereos, no one can enforce the rule because there are no code enforcement officers on duty.
Angry residents often call the Sheriff's Office to complain about noisy neighbors, but that can prove futile as well.
While deputies can enforce the county ordinances, "it's not their main priority,'' said Liana Teague, manager of code enforcement and animal services for the county. "Their main priority is safety and welfare.''
Sometimes, people bring their noise complaints directly to commissioners at board meetings. Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he heard recently from residents who complained about their neighbors' four loud birds.
Noisy birds are not covered in the noise ordinance, Teague explained. Barking dogs, however, are.
Adkins said he has heard from people whose neighbor decided to work on his muffler-less race car at night and another resident whose neighbor ran a noisy car and a very loud stereo after dark.
"It creates a little bit of a problem in the neighborhood,'' Adkins said.
Code enforcement does not receive a ton of noise complaints, Teague said. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, there were 26 cases filed and 15 of those were found to be violations. In 2008-09, the total was 24 with 11 determined to be violations. In 2009-10, there were 19 cases, with 11 violations.
And from October 2010 through July 10 this year, there were 10 cases with four violations.
No citations were issued in any of those years, Teague said.
Some people come into compliance after a complaint is lodged against them. In other cases, a complaint is made but by the time a code enforcement officer is dispatched, the reported violation is no longer taking place.
Public safety director Mike Nickerson told commissioners that the county could trade in its broken decibel meter and a new one would cost $2,075 plus a $500 annual fee for calibration. A new meter would run about $2,500 without a trade-in.
But the commission didn't choose to replace the meter.
Commissioner Dave Russell suggested that the board do nothing. "Nothing, that'll be good,'' Dukes agreed.
Since that time, code enforcement's customer service representatives have been telling people who call in with noise complaints that the county cannot enforce its ordinance. According to Teague, there have been none that have risen to her level.
Adkins, who initially raised the issue, said he hasn't had any recent noise complaints.
He said that if someone asks him what to do about a complaint, "I would tell them to call four other commissioners.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.