Boquete lacks any local news media and this blog and I are not accepting the job of being “Noticias”. Still when something happens and I find it effects me or those around me I tend to get involved, sometimes as an agent of change, as when we had water wars on Jaramillo, sometimes as an observer. This time the issue surrounds four people I know, in conflict. Two are the operators of Amigos restaurant, Mark and Jennifer, the others are residents, Bert and Bonnie, living on a property about forty meters from Amigos Restaurant. This conflict is about noise and the right to operate a business conflicting with the right to live undisturbed by loud music.
As I posted on BoqueteNing.com I was going to speak to the affected parties and provide a detailed explanation of the dispute. I spoke with Bert and with the lawyer for Amigos, I have also spoken with Mark but at times I find lawyers more objective, less emotional, and I wanted information not emotion. I want to thank Bert for speaking with me against the advice of his lawyer. With these facts you can reach your own opinion, if you so choose.
These are the facts as I understand them followed by my interpretation.
Amigos Restaurant is located in Bajo Boquete in what one might call a transitional area. In the past the building has been a mini-mercado, a bar and a disco. In front of the building is a narrow river, a large bus garage and then the main street. Along the street which it faces is the Hotel Fundadores and some distance away some housing. To it’s sides along that street there are no inhabited residences for some distance. The problem is to it’s rear. About forty meters away is the back of the closest residence, that of Bert and Bonnie.
Bert has confirmed to me that at one time he did consider leasing the building for a business, but lost interested when considering the costs of renovation and the rent. It was a shambles when Mark and Jennifer did lease the building. They invested time and significant resources in renovating a community eyesore an turning it into a bar and restaurant.
While Amigos was being built Bert was there often and lent his table saw to aid construction. According to him, he frequently cautioned Mark, operator of Amigos, about potential noise issues. Bert told me Mark assured him there would be no problems. Before opening Amigos had several pre-opening events, a birthday party for Stone, a Bon Voyage party for Barbie and an October a birthday bash. At one of those parties Bert said to me “I am going to be the guy to close this place down”. He told me his secret weapon was MINSA the Ministry of Health and their noise regulations. Bert also let me know that this was no secret and that he had told Mark if there was noise at his house he would close him down.
I spoke to Mark about the noise issue at that time, the band playing was loud. Mark explained he was planning to do noise mitigation including a barrier near the bandstand that would help focus the noise forward into the bar. The band was at back of the open bar area with a gap that opened toward Bert’s house. The music in the tunnel of the bar was loud; so loud I left.
Several times since that pre-opening party I have returned to Amigos when they had live music and an attempt at a barrier, a large rug. The rug was up blocking the path to Bert’s house and the volume down, even in the bar. Unlike other venues like the disco Coca Cola, La Cabana and the transient discos at the fair ground, I was able to have conversations in the Amigos bar. I also know that unlike a local disco, music at Amigos starts early, often at five and ends no later than eleven on weekends not the allowed three in the morning.
I do not live forty meters from the band playing, Bert does, I could leave when I wanted to leave, Bert can not. According to Bert the noise was loud enough to shake his windows and make reading and sleep impossible. He started to complain, he took Mark to his house to hear the noise, he called the police and complained and he called MINSA to complain. The police response was that it was not disturbing the peace. He continued calling the police so often, nights, afternoons, with music, without music that they stopped responding.
The agency under Panamanian law that has jurisdiction of complaints about excessive noise is MINSA, the Ministry of Health. I know people at MINSA I worked with Juan Pablo the MINSA inspector when we had our water issues on Jaramillo. I know Juan Pablo to be honorable and honest. The law governing those complaints is Law 306 of Sept 4, 2002 as amended by executive order Jan 15, 2004. That law makes excessive noise a petty offense and allows MINSA to measure the noise against the ambiant level and determine if it excessive. They need to establish a baseline and if the noise in the living area of the complainant is more than sixty decibles above the baseline it is a violation.
Here is a list of common noises and their decibel levels:
Aircraft at take-off (180)
Chain saw (110)
Amplified music (110)
Lawn mower (90)
Noisy office (90)
Vacuum cleaner (80)
City traffic (80)
Normal conversation (60)
Refrigerator humming (40)
Leaves rustling (10)
Calm breathing (10)
Noise levels of 130 decibels or over will be painful and is very likely to cause immediate hearing damage.
Sixty decibels alone without a baseline is the sound of a normal conversation. Amplified music at the source is almost twice that, the issue however is not decibles in the bar, the source, but in the house of the complainant. Assuming no noise except breathing in the bedroom of a house the law would allow 10 (calm breathing) + 60 (conversation) =70 decibels, less than 80 (city traffic), before an infraction.
MINSA listened to the complaint and met with Mark from Amigos. They told him to find ways to abate the noise, good community relations. Under the law he had forty five days from notice to implement a solution. Despite that legal step in the correct and lawful channels Bert and others produced a petition and took it to the mayor who has no legal authority in this matter. About one week ago the Mayor told Amigos that noise was an issue in the town and that there would be a District Council meeting one week later to discuss the issue; good politics.
At the public meeting the Mayor discussed noise from the Feria which well exceeds legal limits, but because the fair brings big bucks into town and is a cultural sacred cow, the fair can continue unrestricted; this despite a petition with five hundred signatures complaining about Feria noise. He then singled out Amigos and said he would close them down. Five hundred ignored for politics and economics. When an attorney from MINSA who drove from David to speak asked for the floor she was refused the opportunity to speak. What she planned to say to the council was, this is a matter for MINSA and that the Municipo has no legal authority. The council did not take any action, they passed no resolutions, they have no legal authority.
A man who claimed to be both an expert on sound and the lawyer for Bert then told the lawyer for Amigos that they have filed a criminal complaint against Mark. When the lawyer for Amigos asked to see the charges and the documents he was refused access. As of now Mark needs to wait until he is arrested to discover what crime he might have committed to justify criminal proceedings under the health laws.
I understand being upset about noise in my house. Four nights a week Amigos has music and Bert was well within his legal rights to complain to MINSA and demand they do something about it if he is bothered. As enforcers of the law, they gave Amigos forty five days as per statute to reduce the levels. There are still more or less thirty days for Amigos to mitigate the noise. During that time Bert has done an end run on two flanks, he and forty two others have petitioned the Municipo to shut down Amigos and through his lawyer he has filed undisclosed criminal charges against Mark.
If Bert is losing sleep he followed the correct legal procedure with MINSA and should allow the law to take it’s course. He has also filed a criminal charge against Mark who is trying to run a business in Boquete. This use of a criminal complaint in my opinion is wrong. This is a bad precedent to all business owners. Court is the forum of last resort for resolving problems, using criminal law to arrest a person for a non criminal act to solve a civil issue is unforgivable, even if allowed.
Bert, I understand the noise bothers you and others, I have spoken to still others who live close and who have no complaints about the noise.
Heidi Rehm on Boquete NIng
“Until a couple of months ago, we were renting the house right next to Amigos and I think it’s probably the closest house to the restaurant. We never thought that the music was that loud and never had a problem with it. We will sign the petition in support of Mark and Jennifer, fellow restauranteurs, as we want to see Boquete continue to grow with good options for food and entertainment.”
MINSA is your correct legal solution, the drama with the Mayor was un-necessary since he has no legal authority, the criminal charges just wrong. I accept the possibility as so often happens with lawyers and things lost in translation you did not understand what the lawyer did in your name. If this is to be resolved. sit down with Juan Pablo from MINSA and Mark and come to an acceptable solution to all.