TAMPA — The noise of people talking across desks and bustling around an air-conditioned office registers a "comfortable" 55 decibels, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
That also just happens to be the upper noise limit that late-night SoHo bars and restaurants must not exceed if they want to remain on the right side of Tampa noise regulations.
That may explain why roughly 100 S Howard Avenue corridor bar workers and business owners converged on a Tampa City Council meeting Thursday to protest a new city noise ordinance.
The new law does not change existing decibel limits, but is intended to make it easier for police to deal with people and businesses that generate complaints such as bars that play amplified music in outdoor areas after 10 p.m. It is also intended to be easier for businesses to understand and be more likely to withstand a legal challenge if owners appeal fines.
For restaurant owners and bartenders, however, the vote was a call to arms for the city to address what they see as antiquated regulations that are stifling their businesses.
"I'm going to have to ask customers not to speak," said Marcus Winters, a co-owner of MacDinton's in SoHo. "If three or four people are in a conversation, the level will go over 55."
Council members voted 6-1 to adopt the new law but acknowledged they have some work to do to accommodate the concerns of SoHo residents with the area's vibrant dining and bar scene.
They plan to hold a workshop at the end of September to figure out if they need to make changes to noise limits.
"We're not trying to shut you down or stop you being profitable," council member Lisa Montelione said to the crowd that filled the council chamber and an overflow room. "We're trying to address an issue that is citywide."
Noise complaints made to the Tampa Police Department support that.
Police have received more than 19,000 complaints from disgruntled neighbors since the start of 2013. An additional 677 complaints came into the city over the past four years via its customer service center.
But the records show that South Howard corridor, where bars and restaurants have sprung up close to residential streets, is the city's hot spot for noise complaints, generating more reports than any other district. The new law allows police to cite violators in cases where the noise is "plainly audible" at the address where the complaint originated.
Exacerbating the problem for SoHo restaurants is that the area has lower noise limits than downtown Tampa, Channelside and Ybor City, where bars can be as loud as 85 decibels — roughly equivalent to a diesel truck — between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Still, only six SoHo businesses were cited for violations in the past year, according to police records.
Two SoHo residents spoke in support of the new laws, including P.J. Yonnotta, who said that neighbors who complain aren't trying to hurt businesses but that outdoor amplified music should be banned at hours when residents are trying to sleep.
"There are only a few bad actors here," Yonnotta said. "When you can hear lyrics at 2 o'clock in your living room, that clearly is a noise violation."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.