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NOISE: Practical Advice to Resolve this Common Problem

Published: Winter 2003

CNYC thanks Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. for the following guest article on the challenging issue of noise. Dr. Bronzaft is an expert on this topic, a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Council on the Environment and consultant to the League for the Hard of Hearing. Information on how to promote noise awareness in your building can be found on the League for the Hard of Hearing website at www.lhh.org/noise. The site also offers information on the annual National Noise Awareness Day.

Managing agents and board members who frequently receive noise complaints will not be surprised to learn that noise is the number one complaint to the New York City Quality of Life Police Hotline. However, too often, resident noise complaints are not treated seriously, allowing the situation to escalate into a battle between neighbors, and, in some cases, resulting in costly litigation.

Noise is unwanted, unpredictable and uncontrollable sound. But sounds need not be loud to be labeled noise. The sounds that residents generally complain about are not that loud – the continuous buzz from the boiler’s timer, the dripping faucet that has not yet been repaired, or the sound of the television set through common walls. Yet, these sounds can be disturbing and bothersome.

The human body reacts to these noise intrusions through a complex set of physiological stress responses, resulting in a rise in blood pressure, a change in the heart rhythm, and an increase in hormone levels. If the noise is sustained, over time the stress can lead to cardiovascular or circulatory problems. Noise can interfere with sleep, leading to attention and concentration lapses the next day. Noise may intrude on activities such as reading, talking, and listening to music, and thus can lessen one’s quality of life. Noise is not simply an annoyance! Studies have found that noise is harmful to mental and physical health, although we have not yet proven every link in the chain of causation. (See League for the Hard of Hearing journal articles at www.llh.org/noise.)

Those in charge of managing cooperatives and condominiums must familiarize themselves with the research on noise, so that they will not dismiss noise complaints, as too many do and have done. They must recognize that noise can rob residents of the quiet enjoyment of their apartments, as well as a decent quality of life.

"Reasonable Sensitivities" Standard
If you believe that little can be done to ameliorate neighbor noises, because one person’s music is another’s noise, try applying the "person of reasonable sensitivities" standard. Would a person of reasonable sensitivities be bothered by footsteps above her head at six in the morning? Or, by a neighbor’s television set blasting away at two in the morning?

Not all the noises that disturb residents come from neighbors. For example, the boiler room, laundry rooms, and roof cooling units emit sounds that bother residents. Again, would a reasonable person be bothered by the sounds emitted from the boiler room or basement laundry room?

If the answer to the reasonable person query is "yes", then something must be done to abate the noise. In my experience as a member of the Mayor’s Council on the Environment and a Consultant to the League for the Hard of Hearing, I have learned that many residents do not believe that their managing agents and board members take their noise complaints seriously. For this reason, many of then seek assistance from the Police Department, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Buildings Department. However, the 30-year-old New York City Noise Code is limited in dealing with the noise problems as they exist in New York in 2003. As a result, these agencies generally lack the authority to correct noise problems within a residential building, either from the machinery or from neighbors.

Handling Noise Complaints
Some residents seek help from the Borough Mediating Board, which acts as a neutral party in resolving noise complaints. Mediating boards do report some success with noise complaints but their success rests heavily on the willingness of the parties to cooperate with each other. Of course, when all else fails, shareholders turn to legal counsel. Such action can end up being very expensive for the shareholder, the neighbor, and the cooperative or condominium.

In my opinion, it would be best if managing agents and board members handled noise problems in their buildings. At the very least, residents would feel that management is listening to their noise complaints. It has been found that the frustration of not having someone listen to your noise complaint can exacerbate the physiological and psychological reactions to the noise itself.

Cooperatives and condominiums that will consider implementing the following simple recommendations can do much to improve the quality of life in their buildings:

  1. All buildings should have house rules that speak to the rights of shareholders or unit owners with respect to noise. Managing agents and board members must see that these rules are enforced. This means that floors are to be properly covered or treated, that television sets cannot be played loudly at night, that noisy repairs cannot be done on weekends. House rules on noise must be made clear to new buyers, and existing shareholders/unit owners should be periodically reminded about the noise rules.
  2. Those in charge of cooperatives and condominiums must understand that renovating an apartment may create noise problems. For example, failure to adequately cushion sounds from newly installed air conditioners may bring these sounds into a neighbor’s apartments. Complaints tend to increase after apartments have been refurbished, so more attention must be paid to contractor plans.
  3. Before installing new boilers, new washing machines, or cooling towers, managing agents should inquire about potential noises and seek to cushion these sounds.
  4. Superintendents and board members must attempt to listen to the noises themselves – at times when the noises are loudest, even if this means coming into the apartment in the evening when ambient noises are lower. They should stay in the apartment long enough to get a good idea of how disturbing the noise really is. Too often, superintendents and board members don’t visit the apartments to listen to the noises; if they do, they tend to stay only a few minutes.
  5. Someone on the board can be assigned the task of overseeing noise complaints. If it’s a matter of neighbor-to-neighbor noise, the board should attempt to get the two people together to discuss the problem. A board member could act as a mediator.
  6. If neighborhood noises are disturbing several residents, (such as a cooling unit on the roof of a nearby building, or loud music from a bar), the board should approach the owner of the neighboring property to discuss a remedy. If this fails to correct the problem, the board should seek advice from a local public official or the local community board. Responsible boards should act on behalf of their shareholders.
  7. Above all, respect the individual who is complaining about the noise, and do not instantly treat that person as troublesome and difficult.

 

 
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