Years ago, Yankee Jack, the longtime entertainer at the Bull Bar, told me a story about why he decided to move to Key West. He said he was an entertainer on a cruise ship that pulled into Key West for the night and, of course, he took a walking tour of Duval Street. “I was standing in the middle of one of the intersections and I could hear the sound of music coming from all directions,” he said. “I knew I was home.”

It is true that Key West, like New Orleans, is famous for its music. Partying on Duval Street is one of the reasons millions of tourists come here every year. The ambiance of Duval Street is what attracted me to move here 25 years ago. Even before that, when I lived in the Bahamas for several years, I would bring my friends over to “vacation” in Key West. When I visit much larger cities, I often suggest to my hosts that we go somewhere to listen to music. I have learned, however, that live music in most towns is limited, especially in the afternoons. How sad for the people who live there.

Having said that, I certainly understand that over-loud music can be a problem for neighbors, both residential and business. Hey, I live a block from the party patio at the Bourbon Street Bar– one of the loudest venues in the city. So, city commissioners are once again trying to amend the existing sound ordinance to control the volume of  music in Key West. I say “once again” because they seem to go through this exercise every 10 years or so. With the exception of some changes in the allowable volume of music and how that volume is to be measured, the amended ordinance being proposed is virtually the same as the old ordinance. The law is still complaint driven– which means that, to cause any action by code enforcement, somebody has to file a complaint. The complaint cannot be anonymous. Then, code enforcement will investigate and, if appropriate, issue a warning or citation. A venue with more than one warning over a 12-month period could face losing its entertainment license.

I have written for years about the commission’s efforts to control noise here. And, from the beginning, I have felt that the complaint process doesn’t go far enough. A complaint by a citizen should be just the beginning of the enforcement process. Neither the current nor the proposed amended law calls for any followup to ensure that management of an offending venue is remaining in compliance. Instead, if the venue does not stay in compliance, the citizen is required to file new complaints again and again and again. What might make more sense is for code enforcement officers to routinely patrol Duval Street to monitor compliance. And the warnings need not always be formal. After awhile, code enforcement officers and club managers should know each other by their first names– and all it should take is a friendly, “Hey, Charlie, you might want to turn your music down.” (You may or may not be aware that code enforcement officers now work nighttime shifts.)

Beyond failure to fully address complaints and the absence of followup procedures, I think the proposed changes to how loud music can be during the daytime hours are too restrictive. If implemented, they will change the character of Duval Street to the detriment of the music venues, as well as those who like to listen to music on our main street. As it stands now, the amended law would lower the allowed volume of music during the hours between 4pm and 3am, and even lower between 3am and 4am, when the bars are required to close. I am told that club managers may be able to live with this new restriction, even though decibel meter readings would now be taken from the property line, rather than from across the street. But, for some reason, the lowest-volume restriction that would be in effect from 3am until 4am WOULD CONTINUE IN EFFECT ALL OF THE NEXT DAY UNTIL 4 IN THE AFTERNOON! What the heck is that all about?

I understand that the stated purpose of the proposed really-low decibel reading for 3 until 4 in the morning is, in essence, to kill the music at that time of the morning. That is understandable– but it suggests that any neighbor trying to get to sleep cannot get relief until 3am. So that is not much of a restriction. But then, this question must be begged: If the stated purpose of the lowest allowable decibel reading is to kill the music in the very wee hours of the morning, why would commissioners want to apply the same standards to kill the music on Duval Street ALL DAY until 4pm? It simply doesn’t make any sense. Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, one of the sponsors of the amended ordinance tried to explain the extreme daytime restriction on music. “The businesses need relief, too,” he said. That doesn’t make any sense either. Those businesses pay those outrageous downtown rents to get access to the ambiance of Duval Street– which includes the music. Mayor Craig Cates told The Blue Paper Wednesday that he wants to change the daytime restrictions to be the same as the afternoon and nighttime restrictions– a reasonable position. In other words, Cates wants the ordinance to restrict the volume of sound to reasonable levels, both day and night– lower than they are now; but with even more restrictions during the wee hours of the morning.

The second reading of the amended sound ordinance is set to happen at the city commission meeting next Tuesday evening at Old City Hall. A big turnout of musicians, club managers and music lovers is expected.

Oh, by the way, I mentioned music in New Orleans up in the first paragraph. They are going through a similar loud music controversy there. News about that controversy was published on page one of the New York Times two weeks ago.

Dennis Reeves Cooper, Ph.D

Dennis Reeves Cooper, Ph.D

Dennis Reeves Cooper founded Key West The Newspaper (the Blue Paper) in 1994 and was editor until he retired in 2012.

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  1. I attended three, I think, city commission meetings where the noise ordinance (sound ordinance, if you wish) was on the agenda. My impression is, not much will change; the ordinance is mainly for show, it probably won’t be enforced, as history repeats itself. I keep thinking what the city and noise haters really are after, and I’m talking noise, not music, which can become noise, if it really gets loud, is to stop egregious noise; noise that is actually terrorism, it’s so loud, or so penetrating, in the case of some bass “music”. I continue to think the way do deal with that is to give code enforcement officers and police officers the power to determine on site, with or without a complaint being filed, whether sound has become egregious noise, which is at the terrorist level, which sometimes happens on Duval Street, and elsewhere at times. When that is determined, the officers simply shut the offending place down for the rest of that day and night. No citation. No fine. No lawyering up. Not prosecution. No court. No judge. The place can reopen the next day, having lost that previous day’s revenue. Same procedure in place. If the music becomes noise again, at the terrorist level (rhymes, for of, with sociopath), shut the place down again for the rest of that day. I imagine the offender would get the point pretty quick. Yeah, so what if it might not be picture perfect legal under picture perfect constitutional law in heaven law school class. Lots of things that happen aren’t picture perfect legal, which you well know, Dennis, but they happen anyway. Call it reverse Bubba Justice. Call it redneck justice. Just do it. Shut sound terrorists down for the rest of the day and night, and let them reopen the next day. If they sue, they sue. The way it’s set to go with the “new” noise ordinance, the noise terrorists, the sociopaths, are not likely to feel any pain at all, while the people they are killing slowly, or quickly, are feeling a great deal of pain.