by Sandra Pedicini

Orlando Sentinel

March 30, 2008

Neighbors of a popular tourist complex say no one heeds their complaints about music and airboats.

A long-simmering neighborhood dispute about motorcycles, airboats and live music at a local entertainment complex has some questioning how effectively Seminole County controls noise.

Robert and Shari King say the noise from Black Hammock Adventures is driving them nuts.

Robert King has met with the sheriff and complained to county commissioners at their meetings several times in the past few weeks, telling them “the situation we’ve got out at my house is unacceptable.”

“When I moved out here, I expected to get peace and quiet,” Shari King said. “It’s as busy now with as much noise out here as it was when I lived on Country Club Road in Lake Mary.”

Commissioners said they can’t do much to help, because enforcing noise ordinances is the sheriff’s responsibility. Sheriff’s officials say they’re doing all they can.

Deputies have been called out many times about the Black Hammock Adventures entertainment complex, which includes a restaurant, bars and a launch for airboat tours. The spot has grown from a quiet fish camp into a popular destination for visitors from around Central Florida. The spot appeals to bikers, to whom the complex markets to with special events.

Owner Joel Martin maintains that King is harassing him because he doesn’t like the number of people Black Hammock Adventures now brings to the rural neighborhood. “He drives my life crazy,” said Martin, a native of France who took over the Black Hammock complex after he retired to the Oviedo area. “He wants this neighborhood to be like it was 60 years ago.”

Martin said he keeps a noise meter in his bar to make sure music levels stay under control. He has cut back the hours the band plays. And if things were really so bad, Martin said, he wouldn’t have built his own house right behind the business he has built into a thriving tourist destination.

Martin points to petitions signed by neighbors who support him and reports from deputies who have been called or have patrolled in the area. “The live music was barely audible to me,” one deputy reported.

“It doesn’t bother me when I’m here and my parents have never complained about it,” said Willie Chico, who often visits and stays over at his parents’ house nearby.

Still, other neighbors — while not as vocal or persistent as King — say noise has disrupted their lives, too. They say the airboats are louder and the crowds — sometimes coming in by the busload — are out of control.

Helen VanHouten is frustrated by what she sees as Seminole County’s lack of response.

“We’ve been promised this and promised that,” she said. “They don’t follow through with any of it.”

After meeting with the Kings, Seminole County Commissioner Carlton Henley wrote a letter to Sheriff Don Eslinger recently asking for suggestions on strengthening rules against noise.

The sheriff’s office could not say when deputies had cited anyone under the noise ordinance. Still, sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Dennis Lemma said the rules work fine.

“We’re dealing with one situation at one location that has been a persistent problem,” he said. “But the problem has not elevated to the point where it’s a violation of county code.”

County Attorney Bob McMillan describes the county’s noise ordinance as a “hybrid.” It provides for maximum decibel levels — something the sheriff’s office has only one machine to measure. But it also allows deputies to cite people if the noise they are making is considered a nuisance.

“It’s just not an easy issue to deal with,” McMillan said.

Generally, Lemma said, people making too much noise turn down the volume when a deputy asks them to stop. Or they might get arrested on more serious violations.

“It’s something that we enforce daily, but it’s not something that is a persistent problem . . . where we have to take people to jail for it,” he said.

At the Black Hammock, Lemma said, officials from the sheriff’s office have patrolled in the area, taken sound-meter readings of airboats and found them to be in compliance, talked to patrons and met with Martin.

The sheriff’s office brought out a noise meter to take several readings of airboat noise and found only one instance in which the boats violated the county’s standard of 90 decibels at 50 feet — a level that a state statute allows counties to set.

Lemma acknowledged that airboats generally will be louder than 90 decibels as they start up from the shore. Many other states have lower tolerance for airboats, said Les Blomberg, director of a nonprofit group called Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. “They’re permitting the boats to be twice as loud as a semi,” Blomberg said.

In the Black Hammock, Lemma said, the live music has been toned down. Some neighbors agree, though VanHouten noted, “Even with the house closed up, when the TV’s on, I can still hear it. It’s not what it should be.”

The situation echoes one from several years ago in Chuluota. There, a group of neighbors ran into frustrations when they complained about noise at gatherings at the Big Oaks Ranch. A lawsuit filed by neighbors that Seminole County later became part of ended in a judge’s decision keeping the ranch from having large gatherings based on a zoning decision years earlier. Until that lawsuit resolved the issue, Chuluota resident Deborah Schafer said, she can’t remember deputies ever bringing a noise meter out to measure sound levels.

Residents such as the Kings and Schafer have a couple of strikes against them, said Bob Andres, a spokesman for Noise Free America. People who live in rural areas “don’t generally have the numbers and the clout any time it comes to enforcement of noise regulations,” Andres said. “If you’re just one or two voices crying in the wilderness . . . they’re not going to pay much attention to you.”

Fighting a successful business also can be difficult. “It all goes back to money,” Andres said. “Naturally if a business is successful and it’s bringing a lot of revenue into the county, any county’s going to be a little reluctant to shut it down.”

Indeed, Seminole County has considered the business a boon. Martin has a letter from Seminole County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau last year calling Martin’s business “a partner in the effort to increase tourism.”

But that needs to be balanced with the community’s needs, said Don Peterson, president of the Black Hammock Association. “I just don’t know to what extent it should be run like the way it is right now,” he said.