Delray Beach has struggled to police noisy bars and restaurants. That could soon change.

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DELRAY BEACH — After receiving hundreds of noise complaints from agitated residents over the past six months, Delray Beach officials have heard the message loud and clear — something needs to be done about bars blasting music late at night near neighborhoods.

The city agrees it’s a major issue and needs to be fixed. Officials, however, say they’re hamstrung because the current ordinance is too vague, making it essentially unenforceable.

“When you have a noise ordinance you can’t really enforce because it’s too ambiguous, it really isn’t a noise ordinance,” Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia said.

That means a stricter noise ordinance, along with decibel-reading devices, will soon be coming to Delray Beach in the hopes of giving law enforcement the ability to limit the thudding bass from amplified speakers and the shouts of revelers in the wee hours of the morning.

Under the current law, it’s deemed a violation if noise can be heard from more than 100 feet away. However, with no set decibel limit, it becomes a judgment call for police officers on whether businesses are in violation. As a result, officers can have different interpretations on what’s considered too loud.

The ambiguity of the law also makes it easier for offenders to strike down complaints in court.

The plan for the new ordinance is to eliminate that ambiguity by setting decibel limits throughout the city. Police officers and code enforcement will then utilize decibel readers to determine whether a business is in violation. If the noise is above the level, that will result in a fine, creating a straightforward line for bar owners and police officers over what’s allowed.

People wander around Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. After receiving hundreds of noise complaints about bars and restaurants, Delray Beach is crafting a stricter noise ordinance that will allow them to enact tougher penalties against violators.

People wander around Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. After receiving hundreds of noise complaints about bars and restaurants, Delray Beach is crafting a stricter noise ordinance that will allow them to enact tougher penalties against violators. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

Delray Beach Police Chief Javaro Sims supported a new ordinance, telling officials during a public meeting it would give officers clear-cut guidelines on handling complaints.

In a September email to city officials obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel regarding repeated noise complaints, Sims expressed frustration at “comments made by the officers ‘that we can’t do anything,’” adding that “these words should never be uttered from law enforcement. Because we can always do something.”

According to records request from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Delray Beach Police received 812 noise complaints in a six-month span from June to December, with more than 190 being directed at businesses and apartment complexes in downtown Delray Beach.

Officials say the sudden push for a new noise ordinance has come as a result of one bar: Studio 404 Frozen Daiquiri Bar and Cafe, which opened in February. During the same six-month span, Studio 404 received 74 complaints, as compared to the next-highest total of seven.

Located at 404 W. Atlantic Ave. between a condominium complex and a residential neighborhood, Studio 404 has repeatedly drawn the ire of some neighbors, who say the music from the bar’s outdoor patio is so loud it blares through their living rooms and makes it difficult to sleep at night.

Outdoor dining at Studio 404 Frozen Daiquiri Bar & Cafe in Delray Beach on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Outdoor dining at Studio 404 Frozen Daiquiri Bar & Cafe in Delray Beach on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

According to police records, officers frequently noted instances of noise being audible from over 250 feet away, more than two times the 100-foot limit.

One resident who lives in the complex across the street emailed the city saying the music has become such an issue that “it has affected our sleep patterns, our jobs, our relationships and our mental health” and that it’s become an “extreme disturbance living in our own homes.”

Studio 404 is outside the city’s entertainment district, which runs on Atlantic Avenue from Swinton Avenue to Federal Highway and allows bars and restaurants longer operating hours. The district was designed to confine the revelry into a clear-cut area to help limit boisterous noise from infiltrating residential areas across the city.

The city, however, has also tried expanding its footprint farther west on Atlantic Avenue to revitalize that downtown area. The Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency gave Studio 404 about $66,000 for renovations, including new flooring, walls, lighting, electrical upgrades, painting and kitchen work.

Studio 404 co-owner Alex Burns feels they’ve been unfairly targeted since they’re the one of the first businesses to try and jump-start the West Atlantic community The Set, which honors the West Settlers Historic District, Delray Beach’s first African-American neighborhood, established in 1894.

“I’ve [lived in Delray Beach] for over 30 years and they haven’t come up with a decibel reader all this time,” Burns said. “It’s very funny that now one of the only Black businesses that’s been getting a lot of complaints and has live entertainment and music on the patio that now all the sudden we need decibel readers.”

Burns wants Studio 404 to be afforded the same luxuries that bars and restaurants in the entertainment district are given. He said they’re forced to close the patio area at 11 p.m., while noting that businesses with outdoor patios such as Johnnie Brown’s and Tin Roof are allowed to operate until 1 a.m. Delray Beach City Commissioners, however, shot down the idea of expanding the entertainment district during a recent public meeting.

“It’s a big problem for residents and it impacts quality of life,” Delray Beach City Commissioner Juli Casale said. “There are sections of the city [such as the entertainment district] where if you choose to live there, you’re choosing to live in an area where you could expect some noise at certain hours of the night.”

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“The problem is these people were there before [Studio 404]. For them, it’s very challenging because they did not anticipate that and now they’re having to deal with it.”

Burns said residents buying homes in the downtown area should understand “there’s going to be noise. There’s going to be traffic, there’s going to be construction noise.” He added that they should be given an adjustment period because Studio 404 is the first of its kind in that area with an outdoor patio and live entertainment.

“I think because of that it’s going to be a little uneasy at first but I think it’s something they can get used to,” Burns said. “I don’t try to blast it but of course if you have a live band, you’re going to hear it.”

Breathe Restaurant & Ultra Lounge, which is located across the street from Studio 404, received seven noise complaints during the six-month span. the only other bars to receive more than three complaints were Death or Glory Bar (5) and Tin Roof (4).

Delray Beach is currently in the process of crafting a new noise ordinance, which could go into effect by the summer, City Attorney Lynn Gelin said. The city has retained a noise expert to help determine the decibel limits, which will vary in different parts of the city.

Once the new ordinance is finalized, punishments will remain the same for businesses. A first offense will result in a maximum of a $250 fine. Punishments will increase for repeat offenders within a 12-month period, escalating to fines as high as $15,000.

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