"...Though blaring stereos and wailing car alarms are rarely dealt with effectively, some noise control laws do work well..."
"Adrenaline ... is released into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, your muscles tense, and your blood pressure rises. Sudden spasms occur in your stomach and intestines... thoughts are interrupted and the digestion of food halts."
What is going on here? Are you waiting for the A train alone at midnight? Having a tax audit in the morning?
Perhaps these would inspire the high tension reaction described above, but in fact the quoted paragraph comes from a government booklet describing the body's responses to excessive or unexpected noise. These responses are not well suited to city life. Headaches, fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness, and other distress symptoms result from the barrage of noise to which city dwellers are constantly subjected.
All this is in addition to the most obvious problem caused by noise--loss of hearing ability. According to a federal Environmental Protection Agency pamphlet, noise "loud enough to cause hearing loss is almost everywhere in the city." Or as one writer put it. "New Yorkers are expected to work and live in an aural state of siege.
Despite the inevitability of noise in a crowded city, much of the raucous blare can be curtailed, and there are some laws on the books designed to do just that. The principal noise abatement law in New York is the Noise Control Code--Chapter 57 of the city's administrative code. The law declares, "It is the public policy of the city that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life, health. and enjoyment of property." The general rule about noise set forth in the code is Section 1403.3-3.01, which states: "No person shall make, continue or cause or permit to be made or continued any unnecessary noise.
That's heartening, certainly, but it's only realistic to acknowledge that many quality-of-life rules can't be enforced in this city--there isn't enough police manpower. When the racketeers lug those blaring box radios so provocatively through the streets and the parks, you can call your local precinct, and the police are supposed to send out a squad car to "warn and admonish" the culprit and seize his radio as evidence if he won't stifle the noise. But such a complaint (even if you were moved to make it) will be given low priority, behind crimes in progress: only in a quiet residential district on a low-crime day are you going to get an effective response.
The code bans the playing of radios and tape recorders on public transit if the sound is "audible to another person." Thousands flout the rules every year; in 1982, the transit police issued 2,684 notices of violation for unnecessary noise in the subways.
And though the code deals with those sleep-destroying car burglar alarms, the police rarely break open a locked car to silence them. Section 1403.3-4.05 requires that these devices automatically cease operating within ten minutes of their being activated, and gives the police the right to take whatever steps are needed to disconnect them. But, as Sergeant Joe Wilson, a public-information officer, acknowledges, the police must worry about complaints and lawsuits from irate car owners. "What if the car gets stolen after the police have shut off the alarm? Or the car owner says some thing's missing or damaged after the police broke into his car?"
Nevertheless, don't fail to call the precinct if the demonic thing doesn't stop after the requisite ten minutes. The precinct can check the license plate, identify who registered the car, and then reach the owner and tell him to turn off the siren. (No alarm-equipped-car owner ever posts a sign displaying where he can be reached, though the Noise Control Code requires him to.) This notifying-the-owner system will work--sometimes. "I've called the police about eight times when those sirens were driving me crazy," says writer Ariane Batterberry. "In half the cases the alarm stopped after half an hour. They must have reached the owners. In the other cases, unfortunately, the racket went on and on -- all night, it seemed."
If you call the precinct when a neighbor is torturing you with boisterous parties or a stereo blasting into the wee hours of the morning, the police will respond -- after they've attended to more serious matters. "You've got to understand that these are not priority calls, and sometimes we can't get there till hours later," says Inspector Bob Burke, a public information officer. "So if the noise continues for hours and no one has showed up, call again. By the time a car's available, the precinct may assume the party's over -- unless you call back." The police presence is enough to quiet down many parties, but if the offender's obdurate -- won't even open the door, the police can't use force. They can issue a notice of violation -- which the noise-maker must respond to before the city's Environmental Control Board. The police issued 500 of these sporadic noise violations last year. 275 offenders paid fines, 25 cases were dismissed, and the rest are working their way through the system. Penalties are $125 to $500; if the racketeer does not respond to the complaint, the E.C.B.'s collection attorney will try to collect a default penalty.
When the noise is persistent and measurable -- from commercial loudspeakers (commercial enterprises are forbidden to channel noise into the streets to attract customers), from air-conditioning units and cooling towers, from construction equipment, or from discos, for instance -- a determined complainer can get something done. These recurring problems come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Protection. The police handle only the sporadic problems -- noisy neighbors, barking dogs, loud stereos, car alarms.)
The Noise Control Code gives the D.E.P. some ammunition. To limit the din, the code restricts construction activity to weekdays between 7 A.M. and 6 P.M.; construction beyond those times is allowed only in cases of emergency or urgent necessity.
The most innovative sections of the code are those that set forth specific maximum-decibel limits for noisy equipment and machinery. Under these sections, many noise-law violations can be objectively proved. According to Robert Bennin, the city's director of noise abatement, the code has already led manufacturers to produce less deafening cars and trucks, air-conditioning units, construction equipment, and emergency-vehicle sirens.
How would the Department of Environmental Protection handle a citizen complaint about a discotheque? "We'd schedule two inspectors to visit the complainant's apartment on a Friday night with sound-recording and-measuring devices," Bennin explains. "They'll take readings on the background noise early in the evening, measure the increase as the disco gets started, and stay until the place closes--maybe at 5 A.M."
If the decibel level exceeds the legal maximum, the department issues a notice of violation, requiring the offender to appear at a hearing before the Environmental Control Board. "About 80 to 90 percent of our violation notices are sustained by the E.C.B.," says Jerry Ross, director of enforcement. "Our proof is usually indisputable."
The department's 24-hour complaint phone number is 966-7500. But don't expect an inspector to be dispatched to your home right away. There are only seventeen of them, and they are kept very busy.
Bennin and Ross are obviously sincere about combating noise pollution, but they admit that complaining citizens can sometimes find the legal procedures frustrating. There is the inevitable delay (hearings are scheduled five to six weeks after a violation notice is sent, and adjournments usually delay things two weeks more). The Environmental Control Board seldom imposes the maximum penalties allowed by law. Non-compliance must be rechecked and a second hearing held. If you can't sleep because of the gentle roar of an all-night restaurant's air-conditioning unit beneath your window, weeks of delay can drive you mad.
But if you're willing to persist, you may succeed. The City Council recently increased the maximum fines for noise-code offenses, and set mandatory minimum penalties as well. Fines for unlawful construction noise, for example, were raised from a maximum of $1,000 per violation to $2,000; the maximum fine for generally making unnecessary noise increased from $250 to $500 per violation. E.C.B. hearings, held at 333 West 34th Street, in Manhattan, are relatively informal, and Ross's Enforcement Division takes care of presenting the complaint to the administrative judge. And the E.C.B. does have the ultimate power to seal the noise-producing equipment of a violator, a potentially devastating remedy.
An additional source of help in dealing with noise problems is your local community board. Lydia Brown, district manager of Community Board No. 6 in Manhattan, says she has a number of advantages in getting action for her neighborhood on noise complaints. First, as a community-board representative, she has special liaison people in the various city agencies with whom she regularly deals. Also, a complaint made through the community board may carry more clout with the agency. Finally, the board can keep pushing for action with a persistence that may go beyond the frustration threshold of any single individual. But even so, says Ms. Brown, "things can drag out. And some times there is no satisfactory solution. Private garbage trucks operate at night to avoid creating traffic problems during the day. Some necessary noise is permissible." Nonetheless, Ms. Brown has gotten relief for many noise-irritated citizens, and other community boards may have similar savvy and determined staffers to help your noise complaint reach the right ears.
Tenants frequently complain to their landlords about noisy neighbors. Some landlords will demand that noisemakers stifle themselves. If the noise and the protests continue, the landlord can serve a notice of eviction on the offending tenant.
This has actually happened in a number of cases. In fact, according to two appellate-court decisions in New York, landlords are liable if they don't take action to stop tenants who constantly and unreasonably annoy their neighbors. In Kalikow Properties v. Modny, the Appellate Term, First Department, ruled that a landlord who failed to do anything about continual and intense noise emanating from one apartment had breached the warranty of habitability that protects all the other tenants. The appellate panel upheld the granting of a 30 percent rent abatement to a neighboring tenant driven to distraction by the noise.
In a second case, Cohen v, Werner, a tenant broke his lease and moved out because of the unbearable noise coming from another resident's apartment. His Queens landlord sued him for the remaining rent under the lease. Civil Court Judge Charles H. Cohen said the landlord should have taken steps to try to make the premises habitable by trying to restrain the loud and continuous noise made by the other tenant, but chose to do nothing at all." The judge decided the do-nothing landlord had violated the warranty of habitability, and dismissed the claim for additional rent. The appellate term affirmed the judgment.
In another case, State Supreme Court Justice Fritz Alexander awarded a 30 percent rent abatement to a Manhattan couple who heard a "pure-tone noise" that penetrated through the walls of their bedroom. The landlord's remedial efforts were not effective. The tenants, unable to sleep in their Bedroom because of the irritating sound, spent their nights in their living room. When the couple finally sued, the court found that a breach of the warranty of habitability did exist. The rent abatement granted to the tenants exceeded $6,000.
Residents of Stuyvesant Town, however, were disappointed by an appellate court ruling for their landlord in McQuade v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The plaintiffs complained of loud noise and raucous behavior by a group of teenagers gathering late at night in a playground beneath the tenants, windows. The landlord responded to some complaints on given nights, sending security patrols over and trying, without much success, to involve the city police. The youths scattered when security personnel arrived, only to return again. The unhappy tenants convinced Civil Court Judge Solomon Katz that the noise was destroying their sleep and that the management's efforts to stop it were insufficient. But the tenants' victory was lost on appeal. "It may be reasonable to expect a landlord to regulate the clamorous conduct of an identified tenant in a specific apartment." said the appeals court, "but it is unrealistic to require landlords of huge rent-regulated developments such as this one to guarantee every tenant against intrusions which are tantamount to external street noise."
When fellow tenants are making noise, the courts attempt to determine what sound level is reasonable in view of the type of noise, its duration, its purpose, and the time of day when it is made. Balancing these factors leaves much discretion in the hands of the judge. In one case, for example, two professional opera singers living near Lincoln Center were permitted to continue their arias at home. But they had to accommodate their neighbors: The couple agreed to limit their weekday singing to one hour Between 11 A.M. and 5 P.M. and their weekend singing to one hour between noon and 2, and they installed carpeting and draperies to help mute the sound.
In a similar case, a tenant named Shakespeare faced eviction because of his art. A professional guitarist, he plucked away for five to six hours a day.
The upstairs and downstairs neighbors complained and the landlord initiated eviction proceedings. Shakespeare convinced the court that he was not playing in an excessively loud manner (after all, his was not an electric guitar) and noted that he had to practice regularly to maintain his livelihood. Judge Eugene Wolin approved of his playing "during reasonable hours of the day and for a period of about 5-6 hours."
Getting relief through the court system requires quite a bit of time, effort, and money. If the problem is serious, says attorney Stanley B. Dreyer, of Gallet & Dreyer, you can get a court to hear it by simply not paying the rent (after clearly notifying the landlord of the problem and giving him time to act). You then wait to be sued by the landlord and raise your complaints as defenses in housing court. You don't need a lawyer in this court, but in a withheld rent situation you might be wise to consult one. Or you can bring your case as a plaintiff in State Supreme Court, suing for an injunction, a rent abatement, and even punitive damages. Lawyers' fees can run into several thousand dollars relatively quickly in such cases, says Dreyer, and expert witnesses, though not required, are generally needed, adding to the expense. It may be worth it to you, of course. If your co-op apartment is rendered uninhabitable or unsalable, or if intolerable noise disturbs the fabric Or your life, you may have no alternative but to undergo the rigors of the legal system.
Legal Aid/Stephen A. Newman
New York Magazine, August 29, 1983