PORT RICHEY — The business owners here are outlaws.
They host live bands on outdoor stages. They air football games on patio televisions. They play music for diners watching the water. In doing so, they break the city's longtime noise law, the one that bans businesses from amplifying any sound outdoors.
Never heard of it? Neither had some of the owners. The law seems to have mostly sat ignored in the city code, quietly criminalizing radio sets and fast-food drive-thru speakers, rarely enforced.
That is, until last weekend.
"That was the first weekend everybody started getting hit," said Perry Palumbo, owner of the Crab Shack on the Cotee River. The Old-Florida-style bar and eatery was slammed with $65 tickets four days in a row for breaking the noise law, including playing classic rock as ambience. "You can't have a stereo outside. It's like having a city that says no dancing. Have you seen that movie?"
Owners like Palumbo spoke out at City Hall on Tuesday evening, saying the law's sudden enforcement was a costly surprise.
"We lost all kinds of business over the weekend. People came in and asked why we stopped playing music ... then would turn around and leave," Louis LaMacchia, the general manager of Catches, said Wednesday. "I probably lost $10,000 in sales within those three days."
But the City Council didn't budge. Members said the law had been on the books for years, that nearby homes had a right to quiet, and that owners should have said something during the city's noise-ordinance talks earlier this year, which were prompted by residents' complaints.
In response to the business owners' concerns, the city has called an emergency meeting for 6 p.m. Monday to discuss the ban. Council members denied a request to pause ticketing over the weekend.
"The biggest thing was ... we want the rules enforced," Mayor Richard Rober said. "People have been conditioned to not having them enforced around them."
The battle over sound isn't a new one. Waterfront residents in 1989 complained that restaurant music was rattling the windows of their homes, leading the council to pass a strict noise law.
But the law, Colombo said, was never more than "sporadically enforced," even when the city revised it in 2001. Residents asked why the city had stopped upholding its law. The council asked officers to listen closer.
The newly invigorated policing has thrown askew some businesses' plans.
Hooters, which is mostly outside, has turned off its televisions and speakers. Mugs 'N Jugs canceled its booked bands, including Wednesday's smooth rock duo, even though the restaurant sits in the parking lot of a U.S. 19 Walmart, thousands of feet from the closest occupied home. And Catches — which over the last year spent about $1 million building two outdoor tiki bars — has yet to decide whether to cancel the live bands planned for this weekend's SPCA benefit.
"When you go to a restaurant, it's never quiet. That's why libraries don't serve food," said Pat Franke, the general manager of Mugs 'N Jugs. "You need some sort of background music; otherwise, you're just a restaurant on the moon."
Local land use attorney Steve Booth said businesses hoped for a compromise similar to other nearby regulations. New Port Richey's code allows outdoor music that's not "loud and raucous noise." Pasco County sets noise limits, ranging during the day from 66 decibels, the volume of a normal conversation, to 55 decibels at night.
But if the city doesn't relent, he added, the businesses could be forced to sound off in the courts.
"When the loudest noise you hear in there is going to be the cars and trucks roaring overhead," Booth said of the riverfront restaurants near the U.S. 19 bridge, "what would anybody do? They'll have to seek legal redress. And they don't want that. Nobody wants that."
Colombo said owners have known of the ban all along. He pointed to the minutes of a 2009 meeting in which a Catches owner told a city board member who complained of being "brutalized" by noise that his restaurant would keep the music inside.
But not everyone remains so supportive of the law.
"Obviously, you've created a monster," former council member Phyllis Grae told the council Tuesday. "To walk into a restaurant and hear nothing? We don't even do that in my own home."
Contact Drew Harwell at email@example.com or (727) 869-6244.