Noise Complaints can pit neighbor against neighbor
Almost everyone is assaulted by sound, if not continuously, for a good portion of their waking and sleeping hours. Traffic, light rail trains
, machinery, construction, loud music have turned the home into a retreat. That helps explain why noise is an especially sensitive issue within apartments and condominiums, and why noise complaints can create bitter disputes among residents. Unfortunately, noise is a highly subjective issue, and conflicts can take some savvy to resolve.
When a homeowner's association member or law enforcement official is sent to mediate an issue involving noise, many times a judgment call is required to determine if an apartment is truly noisy, or if the complainant is overly sensitive to the normal sounds of apartment life. One starting point is to ask yourself if the person raising the issue is prone to complaining; if not, something may well be disturbing a resident's normal living habits, causing lack of sleep or otherwise disrupting the quality of life. If a landlord or condo board ignores a legitimate complaint, residents can turn to the legal system.
Such is the case, for example, with a retired couple living in a Manhattan prewar co-op, who filed a lawsuit against the board because it failed to take action on an air conditioner that a neighbor had installed through an outside wall. The a/c's sound and vibrations had created a serious noise condition that negatively affected the quality of life complaining couple had previously enjoyed in the building. A protective sheath put around the air conditioner was not enough to solve the problem, although the board by then had unwisely washed its hands of the unresolved issue, and got itself sued for its lack of responsibility. Noise issues can be even more troublesome when they involve businesses in the building.
Condos, co-ops and apartment boards have been required to respond to noise complaints ever since the 1995 case Nostrand Gardens Co-op vs. Howard, in which the co-op was found at fault for not having taken "effective steps" to abate the nuisance after a shareholder repeatedly reported "excessive noise emanating from an apartment … throughout the late night and early morning hours."
In the case where a co-op or condo houses a business, such as a club or bar, the law makes the business-owner, not the co-op or condo, responsible for keeping noise below a threshold of being "plainly audible" from 15 feet away. The ordinance also addresses construction noise. If you hire a contractor in some areas of the U.S. to, say, put in a new sidewalk, that contractor, like business-owners in the example above, is the one responsible for keeping down noise. In fact, the law now even states that they have to create "a noise mitigation plan for each construction site," with a copy of the plan kept available at the site.
Boards themselves are responsible for their staff and for such building-wide equipment as central air-conditioning. For example, if your super uses an air compressor, it needs to be equipped "with an appropriate muffler." You also can't have lawn work done on weekdays before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. or sunset, whichever comes later, nor on weekends and state/federal holidays except between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
"Circulation devices" such as central a/c units on a building's roof cannot create sound above a certain level as measured from three feet inside an apartment with a window or terrace door open. (If you want the precise figure, it's a weighted spec of "42 dB[A]," which you can have someone measure with a decibel meter if someone complains about the noise.
When it comes to co-op/condo/apartment residents themselves, however, prevention first, then mediation rather than litigation is the preferred method of resolving a noise dispute. Most of the time, the people involved are neighbors who will continue to live in the building and interact with each other. Turning to litigation as a method of resolving a noise problem can cause friends or acquaintances to turn against each other.
Everyone involved, from the neighbors and the managing agent to the board, should appreciate the seriousness of the issue and try to resolve the problem without forcing one party to resort to litigation. Prevention is best, but if it comes down to it, mediation is almost always a better solution to noise disputes.