Commissioners vote to limit noise from SoHo businesses

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Neighbors in Tampa may be able to sleep better at night, but businesses are worried they'll be shut down. Both sides packed Tampa City Hall Thursday, as commissioners voted to set strict new limits on nightlife noise.

The noise ordinance, approved by a 6-1 vote, limits bars in downtown Tampa, Ybor City and and the Channelside District to 85-decibels or lower, but in other parts of the city, like the booming SoHo district, the noise limit after 10 p.m. drops to just 55-decibels. It's a cap even certain councilmembers conceded is too low and may have to be changed.

"I just think that we owe it to ourselves to take a look at it. I can tell you that my voice violates the decibel level," said City Councilman Harry Cohen (District 4), who represents the SoHo District and also provided the singular dissenting vote. "Hyde Park and South Howard are more complicated [than districts with higher decibel limits] even though it's the major entertainment center of the city, there are residents literally right on top of the commercial establishments so the tension between people trying to sleep and people being out at night is much more acute on South Howard than it is in some of the other areas."

The penalties for noise violations can be steep: $150 for the first offense, $300 for the second and three or more will cost a bar $450 per violation. But the thing that has some bar owners worried: two violations in a 6 month period could mean losing the right to serve alcohol entirely.

"Is that going to be for a week? Six months? A year? Either way, a week out of business and we'd probably have to shut down," said MacDinton's co-owner Barry O'Connor.

Councilmembers say they've heard noise complaints from residents across the city for years. The old ordinance was convoluted and difficult for Tampa Police to enforce. They're hoping the new rules will be something everyone can live with.

"It's one of the biggest complaints we always get is about the noise," said Councilman Frank Reddick (District 5). "We have attempted to address that issue over the past few years and it's been tied up in the court and we've been challenged on previous versions and it delayed this process. Today what I think we've done is try to help a lot of homeowners."

The noise ordinance isn't limited to bars and restaurants either. Loud cars and even bicyclists with portable music players are also subject to the noise limits. 

The issue returns to city council during a special workshop on September 22. Council members say they'll likely loosen up those limits.

"I think we'll be able to iron out this decibel issue and come out with a number that everyone can live with. That will give TPD and the restaurants and bars clear guidance and take away some of the ambiguity," said Cohen, who says he agreed an ordinance must be passed but wanted to wait until the September workshop to pass it.