TAMPA — People who live near the Ford Amphitheatre felt muffled Thursday as the Environmental Protection Commission ignored their protests and unanimously changed Hillsborough County's noise ordinance.
"We might as well have not said anything," said Arnold Stark, who has heard concert music and obscenities above his television and has felt his house shake from booming bass.
The rules no longer consider a millisecond spike in sound over the decibel limit as a violation. The new regulation measures whether a source of noise averages more than the legal decibel limits over a 10-minute period. The limits range between 70 decibels and 55 decibels depending on times and neighborhoods.
County commissioners, who voted 6-0 for the revisions with Kevin White absent, felt the old rule was unenforceable. A bird chirping, cicada buzzing, car door slamming, soda can opening and car traveling 25 mph all reached or exceeded the county's decibel limits.
"If we strictly enforced the current rule it would outlaw all outside activities," said John McDonald, a noise consultant the county hired.
But residents who surround the Interstate 4 concert venue said the new rules just make it easier for the amphitheater to blast songs that keep their children up, as long as they're followed by a quieter break.
"If a song's only four minutes long, I guess you could do two songs and talk for two minutes," said Chris Clifton, who lives four miles away and spent $9,000 on more soundproof windows. "I think we're being sold out on this."
Nearby homeowners and the amphitheater have had a contentious history. Clear Channel opened the Ford Amphitheatre in 2004, and hundreds of nuisance complaints about concert noise followed, prompting a county lawsuit. The case was settled after Live Nation, a company formed when Clear Channel spun off its entertainment division, agreed last year to build a $2.6-million sound-absorbing wall.
Complaints dropped but they rose again this year. Live Nation blamed the wall's worn-out acoustical carpet and spent $60,000 to replace it this spring.
Last year, when the county began revising its 30-year-old ordinance, officials formed a panel of six sound experts that included a consultant for Live Nation. The only other person to attend the panel's two meetings — which weren't publicly advertised — was Live Nation's attorney.
Many of the comments and recommendations the panel considered came from the Live Nation representatives, according to official notes from meetings. That made residents such as Stark skeptical when commissioners said the changes help control the amphitheater's noisy acts.
When he asked why five minute periods weren't chosen as a measuring stick instead of 10, he said the suggestion went ignored.
"We're trying to stay optimistic," said Joe Gross, Temple Terrace code compliance director, after Thursday's vote. "But it's just after you've taken call after call, you have to be circumspect."
He reminded commissioners to protect residents' quality of life, and to make sure the changes won't bring about a new flood of complaints.
While commissioners weighed the sentiments from the public, they said they also had to consider the importance of the concert venue as a prominent county business that has improved its relationship with the public.
"The amphitheater is there," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "It's there. And we asked them to build a wall and they did."
Commissioner Rose Ferlita called the changes reasonable.
"It's a partnership that has been better than in the past," she said. "We have to be the commonsensical board that brings some balance to this."
Along with new standards affecting the amphitheater, the rule change also exempts musical entertainment in Ybor City, the Channel District and downtown from the county's ordinance, leaving the city responsible for noise enforcement.
Tampa police already handle noise complaints at bars and venues in those areas.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]