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Beach city would ban noisy airboats

This city's latest tourist attraction may end up being its next court battle.

Against advice from the city attorney, commissioners decided Tuesday they want to outlaw commercial airboats, declaring them a noise nuisance.

But there's only one commercial airboat business in Madeira Beach right now and it meets all the city's codes, is within the city's legal noise levels and has an occupational license issued by the city.

The owners of that airboat business _ Gulf Coast Airboat Tours _ say the commission's action is unfair, discriminatory and will deny them the right to operate their business.

"How can they say recreational boats are okay no matter how loud they are or what they are, but there won't be any commercial airboats?" said Patricia Paden. "Isn't that discrimination?"

For both sides, the battle has just begun.

Ms. Paden said she and her husband, Dave, will continue operating until a court tells them not to.

And though commissioners passed the ordinance 4-1, with Commissioner Dewey Leigh dissenting, it was just the first reading of the ordinance, which means anything can happen between now and the final reading in March.

"I don't like noise anymore than anyone else but I believe there's a better way to go about solving things," Leigh said. "We ought to sit down with the owners and discuss what we can do to eliminate the noise.

"As it stands, they haven't violated a law _ if someone says lower the noise level .

.

. I don't have any problem with that."

Numerous people spoke to the commission about the airboat _ some complained about noise and others said the noise doesn't bother them.

Several people presented the commission with more than 200 signatures complaining about the noise.

"It's nerve-wracking. It's disturbing. It's a nuisance," said Madeline Mann, who lives near the airboat's dock at John's Pass.

Former Mayor Hugh LaMont, who originally brought the complaints against the airboat operation, told the commission that "the old way" of doing things was to charge an outrageous fee to keep unwanted businesses out.

Some residents reminded the commission that it did not matter how many people complain _ Gulf Coast Airboat Tours is operating within the law.

"I think there's a misunderstanding of democracy here," said resident and boaters' rights activist Bob Collins. "It's not based on a dictatorship against a minority. In the old way, this was called a lynching.

"I dislike babies in restaurants. That makes me a mean man, but why not regulate that?," he said. "If you can get away with this one, I might stick around to see if we can quiet the whole place down."

Alex Pemberton, a mechanic for the airboat, wanted to tell the commission about the special mufflers the operators had put on to keep the noise down. He might also have discussed what other things the airboat could do to cooperate with the city.

But commissioners would not let him speak because he is not a resident.

"I don't know why I couldn't speak," he said. "My living depends on this business.

"This is a travesty of justice," he told commissioners. "If a man opens an ice cream store and you don't like the type of ice cream, what're you going to do, shut him down?"

City Attorney James Yacavone III told the commission that he thinks there is an 80 percent to 90 percent chance that this ordinance would be struck down in a court.

He also estimated an 80 percent to 90 percent chance that the Padens would win a federal civil rights action against the city if commissioners adopt the ordinance. A loss in federal court would be expensive for the city.

But commissioners said they felt a duty to the residents of Madeira Beach to rid them of the noise.

"How do we protect this city from additional airboats?" said Commissioner Marvin Merrill.

Yacavone said there were other ways to stop airboats from coming into the city in the future, but "I was instructed to get rid of the airboat we have."

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