Neighbors

Summary

You have the right to the peace and enjoyment of your own home.

Most municipalities view noise complaints as a quality of life issue, but for people exposed to noise on a constant basis - it is a form of assault. They feel they are the only one suffering and often feel helpless and trapped in their own homes and apartments.

People who create or allow noise to intrude on a neighbor are indifferent to the rights of others. It is a form of passive aggressive behavior. Where children and teenagers are involved, parents need to set clear examples of appropriate behavior. Businesses are responsible for their environmental impact on the community.

In any conflict between two parties, there is usually a hidden third party that is behind the turmoil. Disputes between neighbors are often caused by boom cars, car alarms, and loud exhaust systems. The prevalence of these technologies has turned neighbor against neighbor, whereby the companies that produce these products quietly profit and assume no liability.

Volkswagen Commercial "Independence Day"

Volkswagen presents two archetypes as neighbors: a young couple who enjoy loud music and an old man with an abhorrence to noise. It's obvious to whom the automaker is pandering to, but how differently would the ad seem if the downstairs neighbor was presented as a parent with a newborn child or someone who is convalescing?


Know The System

Noise ordinances and enforcement vary greatly from one community to another. Until there is a nationwide warranty of habitability that covers noise, residents will have to rely on what local protections are available. Obtain a written copy of the noise ordinance in your area and learn how the police handles noise complaints.

Attend neighborhood community meetings to learn if other residents are also experiencing noise problems. Identify officials who support your cause. You can create alliances to establish a group to present noise issues.

Social and economic factors influence the quality of protections available to its residents. A legislative body driven by economic interests may prefer to protect local businesses instead of residents.

Political influence typically mandate the initiatives for law enforcement to focus on. Those mandates are usually based on community demand and media interest. Some police departments do not always seek to reduce crime in as much to manage crime. They may release statistical metrics to show enforcement activity with regard to quality of life complaints, but that does not necessarily correlate to any actual reduction in noise.

Some types of noise complaints are handled by different government agencies other than the police. Other agencies may include the Department of Environmental Protection, Animal Control (SPCA), Department of Housing, Department of Transportation and the Board of Health.


Animal Noise

One of the biggest sources of neighbor complaints is barking dogs. The real problem is the negligent owner who is indifferent to the welfare of their dog. Some owners will even cast their pet outside all night and assume it can act as an effective guard dog.

Some breeds are more likely to bark more than others, such as Shelties and Collies. However, all dogs can learn to reduce barking when it is properly trained and socialized.

Affected owners and neighbors can install electronic devices that use a specially designed microphone and speaker that picks up a dog's bark and then sends out a corrective tone to keep the dog from barking. As a final resort, dog owners opt for a controversial veterinary procedure called debarking, in which the dog's vocal cords are permanently severed. We do not advocate this procedure.

Neighbors will sometimes adopt farm animals or wild animals in urban or suburban environments, creating tremendous noise for neighbors who live nearby. In most cases, it is in violation of the law and the SPCA or animal control can intervene.


Business Establishments

Businesses that serve the interests of customers and patrons outside of the community are more likely to cause problems for neighbors.

The sprawl of big box retailers brings increased vehicle traffic into communities that are situated in their path. Corporate lobbyists and attorneys overwhelm legislative bodies that resist against proposed big box retailers in the community. Once these businesses are in place, a community will have no leverage in controlling how they operate.

Most fast food restaurants open late at night with a drive-thru. In addition to odor and litter, neighbors deal with noise from patrons driving in boom cars, hot-rods, motorcycles at all hours, including late-night garbage pickups.

Bars, lounges and nightclubs attract a noisy crowd with drunken patrons, vehicle traffic and loud music to the neighborhood. Outdoor cafes are granted permits to install tables, chairs, awning and enclosures within a designated area on the sidewalk. Check to see if they are violating the law by installing more seating than they are legally entitled to.

In cases where establishments serve alcohol, you can file a complaint with the state liquor authority and request an investigation. For example, restaurants are granted a liquor license so that they can only serve alcohol with meals to patrons. But it may not allow them to operate a cabaret, for dancing and loud music. If you can prove that they are in violation, their liquor license can be suspended or revoked.


Children

Young children innately run and jump, laugh and cry and do not possess the maturity to understand how it might affect others in a given situation. Older children learn to observe and mimic social behavior, relative to how they are reared by their parents.

Parents have a responsibility to teach children to behave and respect others. That includes table manners at a restaurant, being quiet during performances, and listening to others when they are speaking.

The law recognizes that children have the same rights to the enjoyment of their property as adults do, but specific noise cases can be imperspicuous. A three-year-old noisily playing in the backyard is not generally considered a nuisance, but a thirteen-year-old noisily playing in the backyard may constitute a nuisance.

Most apartment dwellings are not built with adequate soundproofing, so the sound of a young child running with flip-flops on a hardwood floor can be grating to affected neighbors. These types of noise problems can be mitigated, such as carpets with sound-absorbing padding (one-fourth to one-half-inch thick).

When handling a noise problem, negotiate with the parent or guardian directly, not the child. If the neighbor is reluctant to take action, inform the landlord or property manager as they can mandate a solution.

Case Study

A homeowners association sued a family that was featured on the ABC reality show, "Supernanny," claiming the four young children were unruly, even after the intervention by Jo Frost.

The property manager for the Detroit-area condominium apartment complex reported the complaints continued long after the Supernanny was gone.

Michael and Tamara Amouri, named in the lawsuit, dismissed the noise complaints. They even told one of their neighbors the noise was his problem and he shouldn't have bought a downstairs unit. The noise was loud enough that he was forced to sleep at a relative's home.

The lawsuit alleged the children "created excessive noise at all hours of the day and night." The suit also named Christopher Sharrack who owns the condominium but rented it to the family.

The Amouris tried to contest the lawsuit in court, but the judge found the family was bound by the association's rules, which call for eviction if violations are not resolved. They willfully ignored repeated requests to comply with the regulations.

The judge signed the court order that evicted the Amouris family from the condominium within seven days.


Negotiating with the Neighbor

The time and care you take in approaching the matter can save you a great deal of emotional stress. Neighbor disputes can poison the happiness of your life and home.

Try to determine the neighbor's point of view. It could be that the neighbor is completely oblivious or unaware that noise is coming into your space. If you approach your neighbor as a friend, you may be able to solve the problem with a simple conversation.

Your approach should always be civil, no matter how indifferent the neighbor may initially appear to be. Be clear and assertive. Do not curse, scream, make threats or show hostility when making a request for action. If you appeal to a person's innate sense to do good, you will get better results.

For example, if the neighbor is playing music too loudly, you could say: "I was wondering if you could help me out. My wife suffers from migraines and she is sensitive to loud music. I know it's asking a lot, but could you keep it down for me? I really appreciate it." Another approach is: "I really like the music you're playing but I can hear it in my home, can you keep it down for me?"

You may not always get a cordial response, but you have planted a seed and they may reduce the noise on their own without any further discussion.

Some types of noises are unintentional and can be mitigated. For instance, you could ask the neighbor to relocate the television set nearest your wall in their apartment as a favor that you will later reciprocate. You could offer a new quiet electric lawn mower in exchange for disposing their noisy gas-powered model. This will cost you time and money, but it will afford you and your family some peace and quiet.

In cases where other neighbors are also affected, engage the noisy neighbor in a group conversation.


How To Reduce Noise (If Neighbors Complain)

If a neighbor has notified you there is a noise problem coming from your residence, offer to negotiate a solution that you can both live with.

Neighbor noise problems are common between apartment dwellers and homeowners with attached properties. While common walls create the illusion of privacy, most residential buildings are not well suited to protect against neighbor noise. However, most noise problems can be effectively abated or mitigated. Every situation is different so this can be done with trial and error.

Furnishings such as heavy sofas, cushions, tables, curtains, can absorb (reduce) noise. Rugs and carpeting with extra padding underneath can significantly reduce noise for downstairs neighbors. Chairmats (a smooth surface beneath an office chair) can also reduce noise. Bare floors and living spaces, large metal and glass surfaces, furnishings with casters can reflect (increase) noise.

A common problem among neighbors is music or television sound. Speakers, television sets, pianos and musical keyboards should not be placed on the side of the shared wall. Subwoofers (especially on the floor) should be avoided; low frequency noise can be easily heard and felt in other dwellings. Satellite speakers placed near the ceiling can also create noise problems.

With proper placement, speakers can be enjoyed with less volume. It should be ideally placed at about ear level and directed toward the center of the room. Bookshelf speakers are better suited in apartments.

Some furnishings vibrate or transmit an inordinate amount of noise from common appliances and equipment. You can use padding underneath computer printers, telephones, food blenders and processors to mitigate noise.

The strategic use of acoustical panels, ceiling tiles, sound dampening mats can also help reduce unwanted sound. An extra layer of heavy sheetrock can further reduce noise. A qualified acoustical consultant can recommend the right treatment.


Gathering Evidence

If negotiations fail, you will need to able to prove to a third party that the neighbor is creating a noise nuisance. That third party could be a landlord, building management, homeowners association, law enforcement or the courts. You need to prove the type of noise, time of day or night, length and volume.

The most common way to document the problem is with a video camera or an audio recorder. One issue with electronic recording devices is that they do not accurately record low frequency noise. Another problem is that low frequency noise can be difficult to localize because it is seemingly non-directional.

Noise can be measured with a decibel meter. There are two sound measurements possible with a meter: the dB(a) weighted standard measures noise that can be heard, and the dB(c) weighted standard can measure noise that can be felt. Most meters allow measurements for both standards. You can also hire an acoustics consultant who can measure the noise on your property for you.

Another method is to request a police officer to investigate and personally observe the noise. You can then obtain an incident report with the officers' observations. You may be able to hire an off-duty officer or deputy to investigate the noise, prepare a written affidavit or serve as a witness in a court of law attesting to the noise problem.


Dealings with the Neighbor

If the neighbor is a renter or owns a co-op/condo, copy the landlord or building management. You can obtain the contact information by looking up the county property records or locating the inspection placard in the building vestibule. The owner is liable for what happens on their property, even if they do not live there. You can file a claim for damages and code violations with the town or city housing authority.

If you don't get a response within 30 days, send a second notice and copy the police department. You want the police to be aware that there is an ongoing problem. You can also forward a copy to local media contacts for a possible story. Be sure to have a list of talking points ready so that if a reporter contacts you, you will know what to say as succinctly as possible.

Some communities offer mediation services to settle neighbor disputes. Sometimes the arbitration is binding or non-binding and its success depends entirely on the willingness of both parties to negotiate the matter.

An effective letter should cite the actual noise ordinance that pertains to the situation that you are experiencing. It may help to have a meeting with the police department prior to sending the letter.

Neighbor Complaint Letter

Your Name
123 Main Street
Anytown, US 12345-6789

John Doe
456 Main Street
Anytown, US 12345-6789

VIA CERTIFIED MAIL

June 1, 2010

Re: Noise Problem

Dear Mr. Doe,

I am writing to you regarding a continuing noise problem that we are experiencing coming from your property.

On Fridays and Saturdays between the hours of 11:00pm - 2:00am, your two sons, Josh and Gary play loud music from their vehicle (a red Nissan Sentra CWG-8265) that can be heard and felt in our home. I spoke with you last on May 1, 2010 regarding the matter.

I have met with Lt. Gerry L. Sheldon at the Sheriff's department regarding what noise ordinances are in place in our community. According to the Anytown Administrative Code 24-221 (Section D, E): No person(s) shall permit to operate any electronic sound devices, musical instruments, radio, television or amplification equipment that is plainly audible between the hours of 10:00pm and 8:00am.

I learned that the Sheriff's department routinely investigates noise complaints and if found to be in violation of the ordinance, the offender can be subject to a fine of $250 for the first offense (with substantially higher amounts for repeat offenses) and a possible summons to appear in court before a judge. I advise you to check with your legal counsel to verify your standing on this matter.

Upon receipt of this letter, I expect that the noise will cease and you will comply with the law. I will be in further contact with the Sheriff's office if required in this matter. Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

[Your Signature]

Your Name

CC: Lt. Gerry L. Sheldon, Anytown Sheriff's Department


Dealing with the Authorities

A common problem is that noise complaints are not handled properly by many police departments. Police officers may not have sufficient training to properly use a decibel meter if the noise ordinance requires it to determine enforcement. Officers do not always follow the correct procedure in handing noise complaints. Officers are afforded a great deal of protection from public complaints, there is little consequence for officers not properly handling your noise complaint.

Police officers act in the best interests of the police department. If noise pollution enforcement is not mandated by police officials, even with a noise ordinance, they may elect to ignore your noise problem. If you call them repeatedly, they can ignore you or respond only to the extent that they assume you will not bother them further.

When you call the police with a noise complaint, it can either be categorized as a crime in progress report or a quality of life complaint. Most noise complaints are categorized as a quality of life complaint. Whenever possible, get a reference number that is a record of the complaint. In New York City, the biggest numbers of calls to 311 are noise related.

Sometimes noise complaints are closed out without any investigation. Callers who habitually complain about noise are sometimes dismissed outright, because the system keeps a log of the caller's prior complaint history.

The patrol supervisor is responsible for coordinating the officers on patrol. The patrol supervisor has discretion of which complaints are handled and how they are prioritized. Factors affecting that decision include the number of serious calls that needs to be handled and available officers on duty. In addition to noise complaints, officers routinely handle traffic stops for possible DUI, domestic violence, traffic accidents, theft and shootings.

When the police come out, explain the problem and if possible, find other affected neighbors willing to speak to them as well. Let the officer know that you are keeping a record of the complaint and that it is an ongoing issue. Remain civil with the officer at all times, no matter the outcome of their investigation.

Later, obtain a copy of the police incident report as evidence that there is a continuing noise problem. If the neighbors ever threaten you, notify the police immediately by calling 911. Make it clear that you believe they are fully capable of carrying out their threat, and tell them that you are concerned for yourself and the safety of your family.

If the police do not effectively handle your noise complaints, ask to speak to the patrol supervisor or the community affairs officer. Be sure to call during the hours that the noise has been known to occur. If they will not speak with you or do not seem to take the issue seriously, meet with the police commander at the station. Several police departments also have community council meetings for the public to discuss enforcement issues.

Bring a copy of the complaint log and incident reports. Make it clear that all civil efforts to resolve the issue with the neighbor have failed. When you make further complaints to the police about the problem neighbor, where possible, be sure to also notify the patrol supervisor and the police commander directly.

This is a process that can take several months. To the extent that you are determined, you can effectively resolve the situation. The neighbor may have provoked you, but you can choose how to handle it. You have gathered evidence, you are showing the police that you are not going away, and you are working with them.

When the problem is resolved, send a thank you letter to the police and a copy to the local media. It will let the neighbor know that not only is the law on your side, but the police are on your side.