by Brent Batten

Naples Daily News

August 18, 2015

They like it quiet down on Marco Island.

It shows up in their new noise ordinance, which eschews traditional measurement methods in favor of cellphones.

It showed up in their old ordinance, which was wielded at times despite those traditional measurements.

And it shows up in the stone wall that has gone up after revelations a city councilor directed police to enforce the old ordinance, stifling further discussion.

A lot of the current turmoil on the island can be traced to this quest for quiet. The controversial rental ordinance up for voter approval in March is primarily a question of noise.

It’s not that one neighbor wants to stop another from making money renting out a house. It’s one neighbor concerned that a steady stream of vacationers will occupy a nearby house bringing an equally steady stream of loud parties.

Councilman Joe Batte has become the personification of that contingent after his repeated complaints to the chief of police resulted in a citation being issued to a renter on March 10 even though the police officer responding to the complaint said he found no violation.

Changes to the noise ordinance approved in April are an offshoot of that debate. It’s an attempt to give officers more discretion and to remove the technical requirements that made enforcing noise rules difficult.

Now that Batte’s actions have been called into question, the effort is to quell noise in a symbolic sense.

City Council members discouraged members of the city’s volunteer audit committee from taking up discussion of Batte’s actions and any further review of them.

City Attorney Alan Gabriel sent a memo to the council members opining that City Manager Roger Hernstadt was under no obligation to report Batte’s directives to staff to anyone.

The main concern of Police Chief Al Schettino isn’t that a council member was enlisting his help against a taxpayer. It is that someone leaked a draft of a police report laying out the entire episode for everyone to see. He’s gone so far as to request the State Attorney’s Office find the whistleblower.

Batte and the other councilors have largely declined to comment. Batte did not attend Monday’s council meeting.

Marco Island doesn’t need an ordinance banning noise. It needs one banning this degree of silence.

But a noise ordinance it has, and it’s a doozy. It bans noise 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Kids playing pool volleyball, a homeowner mowing his lawn or a family watching football could all be subject to citation, according to the discussion that played out over two readings before council, one on March 16 and one on April 6.

The city relies on the discretion of police and code enforcement officers to ignore frivolous complaints.

Technical descriptions of noise and requirements for decibel meters present in the old ordinance were removed from the new version.

Ironically, or perhaps not, it was Batte on April 6 who made the case that the new ordinance wouldn’t be abused by one citizen badgering another with noise complaints.

“It (noise) is going to be heard not just by a regular person, it’s going to be heard by a trained law enforcement or code enforcement officer. These people are trained to do this work,” Batte said.

Just a few weeks earlier it had been Batte — just a regular person in the eyes of the city charter which grants no enforcement status to council members — who heard noise from a home across a canal. The responding officer, the one supposedly trained to do this work, didn’t find a violation but Schettino ordered him to get a statement from Batte and issue a ticket.

The city manager says the new ordinance won’t rely on just the word of an officer or complainant. The protocol is for the officer to get 50 feet from the offending party’s property line and whip out his cellphone. If the noise is sufficient to register on the phone’s voice recorder, you’ve got yourself a violation.

The concept of cellphone as decibel meter was met with something just short of snickers by experts in the field.

Rick Holtsclaw is a retired Houston police officer who specialized in noise enforcement. He’s now with Noise Free America, a group that helps cities develop workable noise ordinances. In other words, they’re in favor of quiet.

But Holtsclaw said Marco’s new approach is a mistake. “The use of a cellphone to analyze and determine sound variances is laughable. Don’t get me wrong–I admire and appreciate the effort, but this municipality is setting itself up for a huge legal embarrassment,” Holtsclaw said Monday.

Sound meters that are regularly calibrated are required in court, he said.

Bob Andres is a noise expert who helped Naples craft its ordinance. “If I was the defense and somebody said I recorded the sound on my cellphone I’d say, ‘That’s garbage,’ ” he said.

“Any professional you talk to is going to say, ‘I want something objective,’ and that is very subjective,” Andres said. “All that’s going to do is make the attorneys wealthy. It’s sad they want to go that way.”

And equally sad to see city leaders trying to confront the noise over noise with enforced silence.

(Connect with Brent Batten at [email protected], on Twitter@NDN_BrentBatten and at