Since the 1940s, the white concrete-block building at 6440 N. Orange Blossom Trail has housed a watering hole. Today, it's the Junkyard Saloon, a gritty biker bar just north of Clarcona-Ocoee Road sandwiched between used-car lots, with Harleys in the parking area and their owners downing brews on the front deck.
A few years back, owner Nika Santonino expanded; she built a steel-framed structure on the back portion of the Junkyard property and opened the Dungeon, a metal music venue that caters to young goths and metalheads. The two bars may have clashing clienteles, but Santonino says there have never been any problems.
Between the chugging guitars and the rumble of the bikes, the Junkyard can get loud. For the first two years of the Dungeon's existence, however, Santonino says she never had any complaints. That changed a couple of months ago, when a new neighbor moved into a house across Busby Avenue from the bars and began calling the cops. He called at least seven times in a six-week period, records and interviews indicate, and finally, he got the cops to do something about the noise.
On April 10, sheriff's deputies arrived at Vincent G. Robinson's house shortly after 11 p.m., after he'd lodged another complaint. "Mr. Vincent Robinson stated in a sworn statement that the loud noise (music) coming from `the Dungeon` was ‘affecting his peace and quite' (sic)," wrote Sgt. David Legvold in a police report. "Mr. Vincent Robinson stated that this is an ongoing problem and he wanted the Orange County Sheriff's Office to take enforcement action."
The deputies arrested Santonino for breaching Robinson's peace. She spent the next 13 hours in the Orange County jail.
You'd be forgiven for thinking it odd that the purveyor of a legally licensed music venue in the middle of nowhere could be arrested for making too much noise, or that a man who chose to move in across the street from a metal bar could convince the cops that the bar was such a disturbance as to warrant criminal charges.
"It's like moving next to an airport and bitching about planes," says Orange County code enforcement director Kurt Fasnacht.
The sheriff's office maintains that none of that matters. "It doesn't give `the bars` the right to overdo it," says spokeswoman Cpl. Susan Soto.
But Santonino wasn't overdoing it. Sheriff's office reports show that Legvold arrested Santonino after determining that her bars' volume exceeded the levels spelled out in Orange County's noise ordinance. The problem is, Santonino didn't violate that ordinance; and even if she did, that ordinance wouldn't apply to her bar.
Peace and quiet
The county's noise ordinance is spelled out in Section 15, Article V of the county code. It says that in residential areas and noise-sensitive zones — churches, hospitals, libraries, schools, etc. — noise levels cannot exceed an average of 55 decibels over a 15-minute period between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The night of Santonino's arrest, county environmental specialist Ricardo Moore took two decibel readings from the edge of Robinson's property. The first checked in at 52 decibels. Legvold had him try again. This time the Junkyard measured 57.2 decibels, or slightly above county limits.
Except it most likely wasn't. County code says that at sites with high levels of background noise — and a place packed with motorcycles along a busy road like North Orange Blossom Trail would seem to qualify — "the maximum allowable noise level will be three `decibels` above the allowable levels." That means Santonino could arguably produce up to 58 decibels.
Of course, such a discussion is academic, as the noise ordinance doesn't even apply to her bars. The county specifies that the 55-decibel limit only matters in "predominantly" residential areas. The area surrounding the Junkyard is not residential. There are no legal residences on Busby Avenue, the only street other than the Trail that abuts the bars.
That includes Robinson's. Though no one's sure why, his property has two zonings. The part closest to the Junkyard, where his house sits, is commercial property, according to county records. The back part of his lot is zoned residential, but it's vacant.
Even if Santonino did violate the county's noise law, the ordinance calls for a notice of violation, rather than handcuffs. As Soto points out, the breach-of-peace law under which Santonino was charged doesn't have a specific noise threshold. Instead, the state law's measure of criminality is whether or not the noise affects "the peace and quiet of persons."
It's an ambiguous standard that allowed Legvold to arrest Santonino on Robinson's behalf, even though she was adhering to county-specified noise levels. Because Santonino filed a complaint against Legvold with the sheriff's office's professional standards division, the OCSO would not allow Orlando Weekly to interview the sergeant.
A key question in this case is whether Robinson is legally allowed to live where he's living, and by proxy, whether his complaints have any legitimacy. If the house isn't an actual residence, it doesn't seem that they would.
According to Mitch Gordon, the county's zoning manager, there are a handful of circumstances in which a person can live in a commercial building — which Robinson's house, built in 1955, is. One would be if he owned and operated a business out of his house.
Robinson owns VJ Homes LLC, a company that owns a handful of properties in Orange County. That business is registered with the state to a house on Rex Hill Trail that Robinson and his wife purchased in 2005 for $321,100, an address at which Robinson and his wife claim their homestead exemption, according to property records. There is no indication in public records that the Robinsons run a business out of their Busby Avenue property, which they bought in September 2003 for just over $10,000 and deeded to VJ Homes LLC in December 2008. Robinson declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation with Santonino.
Another circumstance in which it's legal to live in a commercial area: If your building has "always been used as a residence, you don't lose the ability to keep using it as a residence," says Gordon. Fasnacht, the code enforcement manager, says he's trying to figure out whether that property was ever zoned for residential use, and whether it qualifies for such a "grandfather clause" exemption.
Records indicate the house was zoned commercial property when Robinson purchased it in 2003.
Who's the nuisance?
According to Santonino and Junkyard patrons and employees, Robinson harassed clubgoers for weeks. He called Dungeon patrons "white trash bitches" who listened to the "devil's music," they say. Santonino told police Robinson had cut the Junkyard's phone lines and disabled its air conditioning system. On April 22, she got an injunction forbidding Robinson from setting foot on her property.
Santonino says Robinson walked onto her property April 24 and took photographs of the bands that were loading in for a show later that night, then called 911. When the police showed up, Santonino says they were going to arrest Robinson for violating the injunction, and her for breach of peace again. In the end, however, neither went to jail that night.
Soto says that sheriff's deputies have tried to mediate the dispute, to no avail. "The decision they made `April 10` was to arrest her," she says. "Could it have been prevented? I think it could have been prevented."
All it would have taken, she continues, was for Santonino to lower the volume, to "show some effort." Meanwhile, one man's dislike for metal means the grudge match will likely continue. "If this guy keeps calling, we're going to keep going out there," she says.
The constant police presence, even though no law is apparently being broken, is driving customers away, Santonino says. "This is affecting my health," she says. "This is affecting my business."