Sanibel Community Church's application to modify its original conditional use permit to include two additional air conditioning units was approved at Tuesday's Sanibel Planning Commission meeting.
That said, the matter was discussed for nearly three hours by commissioners, several upset resident neighbors and Ray Pavelka, representing the church.
To address complaints about excessive noise made by the air conditioning compressors that face neighboring residences, Pavelka provided data from three sound pressure level tests done at the site. Starting with a base "ambient" background noise level of 42 decibels, a church consultant recorded a level of 48 to 49 db with all seven A/C units running. Code Enforcement readings ranged from 56 to 59 db, about the same results as an outside source.
The entrance to Bailey's Center located on Periwinkle Way adjacent to George & Wendy's has been closed since it no longer meets city code. The center is moving the entry drive east on Periwinkle and modifying much of its parking lot.
City code states sound levels should not exceed a level of 60 db between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. and 66 db from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"Both readings are below 60 db, the lowest level allowed," said Pavelka. "We have to be responsive to the residents' concerns, but there are limitations. In the interest of being good neighbors, we will continue to look at options to reduce noise."
Pavelka said a number of measures already have been taken on the issue, such as additional vegetation buffer for the affected residences, installing larger trees, reducing sidewalk and hard surfaces and using smaller residential size dual compressor units made by Trane. Constructing sound abating fences or walls might not be a solution because of restrictions.
Though the church's request to add two A/C units, for a total of seven, still meets the city standard for noise level, neighbors in the adjoining area known as Island Woods are not satisfied.
"The natural vegetation barrier is now gone because of land clearing for the construction," said resident Kurt Harjung. "It protected us from the noise made by Jerry's Supermarket's cooling towers. We, the residents, added a vegetation barrier at our expense. This (church) is the most ambitious project on Sanibel in 20 years and it's right next to a residential area. It's now a big open area."
Neighbor Mark Mathusa spoke the harshest words for the project.
"My house is the closest to the church," said Mathusa. "They (church) knew going in there would be a problem with five air conditioners and they did nothing. Instead, they added two units and now they are hiding behind decibels. They have no will to get this done.
"You know the sad part is this has gone from a sound issue to being personal, but we are not going to go away on this issue."
Commissioners kicked around the idea of reading decibel levels of the sound coming from Jerry's, or tabling the application to a later date, and even adding a condition to approval of the application for 30 or 60 days.
"I did hundreds of sound studies at a military base in Vietnam when I was there," said commissioner Dr. Phillip Marks. "Anything under 50 db is considered quiet. I moved here 10 years ago and I noticed a sense of harmony in the community, but there's a lot of emotion here, lots of hard feelings."
Commissioner Chuck Ketteman made and modified his motion to approve the application while recommending that the planning department try to work with the church and neighbors on finding solutions to the noise.
"We have rules and when the church meets those rules it is hard to say no," said Ketteman.
No data is available, from either residents or city officials, of what the ambient noise levels were before the church began to clear the vegetation from the 8.1-acre parcel to construct its new 10,000 square-foot sanctuary, office and Family Life Center. The city and church sound level readings were taken at the property line, 160-feet from the A/C units, but none have been taken at the affected residences, even by the residents.
"While I am sympathetic to the complaints of the residents, we in government will never be able to legislate good will between sides," said commissioner Chris Heidrick.
With the application meeting city standards, and despite empathy for the residents, commissioners approved the application.
"They (church) got what they wanted," Mathusa said afterward. "We got nothing."
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane stepped in and offered a meeting between himself, City Manager Judith Zimomra, planning director James Jordan, the church and the residents to come up with solutions or appeals through the process.
"In the interest of the community," said Ruane, adding, "I fought government from your side before I joined government. The way I did it was by doing research and with my own data."
In another matter, at staff request, a conditional use permit application for a new dine-in and carryout donut, coffee and sandwich shop with 40 indoor seats proposed for 1020 Periwinkle Way was postponed to the next Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 23.