PORT RICHEY — Courtney Lazzari, a server at the Crab Shack, was standing behind the empty wooden bar of this quiet fish house on the Cotee River when she offered, with a laugh, this simple thought:
"You know when the band stops playing, and it gets quiet?" she said. "Everybody looks around, whispering. It's so awkward."
It's a fitting explanation for why this place — a waterfront tiki hut lined with old surfboards, fish statues and the kitsch of a hundred Florida summers — is breaking the law.
The Crab Shack, as with all the outdoor bars and eateries in this little riverside city, has been ordered by city code to unplug the amps, zap the TVs and kill all "amplified sound" outdoors. For the good of all eardrums, the council said, its longtime code must be enforced. It's too loud! And, as it turned out, it was a $65 ticket.
So after the last weekend in September, when a police officer exposed eight scofflaws aiding and abetting outdoor speakers, the businesses were faced with a dilemma:
Cut the football games and the rock ballads, and doom guests to an uncomfortable silence?
Or just say the heck with it and turn them all back on?
• • •
On the Friday after the first noise tickets hit, during one of the first cool weekends of fall, a local duo called Calamity Jane set the stage for a night gig at Rum River.
The thatched tavern next to the Catches Waterfront Grille, a flip-flop to Catches' top-sider, was on this night particularly dressed down. Servers, catering to anglers from the weekend's snook, redfish and trout fishing tournament, wanted some high-energy music to keep the diners and drinkers entertained.
But Calamity Jane was torn. The duo, led by Janie Richards, had been told by managers before the show to keep it quiet and mellow. Now servers wanted loud and fast. Everybody got angry at each other and, in the musical mayhem that followed, Richards' other band, Motel Funk, was canceled from Rum River's Halloween Party.
"I guess they got offended," general manager Louis LaMacchia said.
"Too many cooks in the kitchen," Richards said.
LaMacchia tells this story from his cramped office in the kitchen, pointing to the empty squares on his band and banquet calendars. The restaurant, he said, is typically booked out for months. But in recent weeks, four musical acts in a row have canceled, and party organizers have called frantically to ask what the law means for their big nights out. LaMacchia scrambles to reassure everyone that they'll still play music — noise law or not.
His attitude — that background ambience is worth a $65 ticket — matches many of the other restaurateurs, though some have made small concessions in an attempt to stay legal. At Hooters, the TVs are on but their six speakers aren't, dooming the baseball announcers to a pantomime voiced by whirring fans, squawking seagulls and water on the dock. Will Schubiger and Don Brothers, who are planning to open Brewsky's Bar & Grill next week at the site of the old Porthole Pub, said their plans for an outdoor section are hitting some big last-minute snags, including where they should put their karaoke machine.
The police don't seem too excited about the law, either. In August, Chief Dave Brown said, a police officer was co-opted by city management into patrolling for noise violations, as the city's sole code enforcement officer was let go earlier this year. LaMacchia said the officer told him handing out noise tickets wasn't exactly his favorite part of the job. Since that weekend last month of eight tickets, the police have yet to hand out another.
Brown said the officers remain dedicated to enforcing the law and responding to noise complaints. But records show that the gripes have been few and far between. In the nine months before the eight-ticket weekend, police received 18 noise complaints, with only one, at the Seaside Inn, stemming from outdoor music. Dogs, birds and car alarms were more of a bother.
Council members will meet on Tuesday to discuss the noise law, but they haven't made any promises to change it. Council member Bill Colombo defended the law by saying it's a simple conflict: protect the rights of residents to peace and quiet, or defend the desires of businesses to set the mood. Residents say the river carries sound just like it carries fish. The grief, the council said, has been an issue for years — even member Nancy Britton said the music echoed through her walls.
The law, for all its controversy, has caused one big change in volume. Code opponents flooded City Hall last Monday for what Mayor Richard Rober called the biggest meeting in recent history. More people showed up, Brown said, than during the city's dissolution debate.
The law's "just insane to me," Jane McKee, a local music booking agent with Jane's World Entertainment, said last week. "Are they going to tell them they can't use blenders to make margaritas?"
• • •
Lazzari, server Tammy Quick and bartender Jerry Pfeiffer were standing at the Crab Shack bar, illegally watching Divorce Court on an outdoor TV, wondering where the lunch rush was.
The cool weather was just setting in on the all-outdoors eatery when they got their tickets. "They had perfect timing to screw everybody," Quick said.
The dock is empty, except for a tour boat, and there are only two full tables on a Thursday at 1 p.m. Half the serving staff was sent home. They worry diners might stay away, from fear of the awkward silence, and have been telling anyone who asks that the law won't stop them from hosting live music. "We would obviously lose a lot more than $65 if we stopped," Pfeiffer said.
The sentiment seems the same at Rum River, where LaMacchia's assistant has landed a last-minute gig: the Rebound Band, a classic rock group out of Spring Hill, has agreed to play. One less empty square.
And if the noise law comes back to bite them again?
LaMacchia grabs two Radio Shack sound level meters he keeps in his office drawer.
"We're ready for 'em," he said.
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.