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Legally Speaking: The limited options for noise abatement in community living

Sep 9, 2010 | Archive, Blog, Text Only Article | 0 comments

A few years ago I moved into a charming condominium in Seattle with a sweeping view of Elliott Bay.  I felt so lucky to find such a sweet place hidden in a quiet residential area but so close to the city.  Yes, I felt so lucky… until my first night in my “sweet” condo.

I fell asleep easily enough but did not realize my unit came with its own too-early alarm clock of sorts.  It was a “4:30 in the morning” alarm in the form of my neighbor.  He begins his daily round at the same time everyday (he is a driver for Fed Ex, hence the early hours).  Little did I know that my bedroom wall was shared by his kitchen wall.  When he ground his coffee beans, or ran the kitchen faucet for his hot water he might as well have come over and used my kitchen – it would have been quieter.  Then the silverware drawer clanging as he assembled his lunch…you get the picture.

My first thought was, “is there anything to be done?”  I consulted my association’s rules and regulations and read through the appropriate sections of the association’s declaration.  I quickly realized that there was no recourse in the governing documents to abate noise due to walls with inadequate sound proofing.  The most reasonable avenue was a face-to-face meeting.  So, I had a neighborly discussion with Mr. Fed Ex driver about my noise issue at the first opportunity.  He was nice enough of course, but hey, the man needed to use his kitchen before going to work.  In this scenario, there was simply nothing for me to do but accept that I was now living in shared community space with certain limitations.  In this instance, it was a limitation on my sleep.  So I adjusted.

However, later that week came another revelation that mine was not the quiet residential condominium I had thought.  My sweeping view of Puget Sound also came with a view of the alley.  A view, that is, when one peered down directly from my windows.  So, imagine my surprise when the garbage collectors drove through that alley to pick up the trash and glass recycling at 6:00 a.m. (Is there anything louder than glass recycling?)  The alley with brick exterior walls on either side created a perfect acoustical environment that ensured each breaking shard of glass made its glorious crashing debut in my ear as if glass was being smashed right in my living room.  So much for a quiet cup of coffee with the morning paper.  At least this was not a daily occurrence.

Yet, in this scenario I learned that I did have recourse.  In the city of Seattle, commercial garbage trucks under contract with the city cannot collect from any property adjacent to a residential zoned property before 7 a.m. or after 10 a.m.  And, according to the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), if they continue to collect after being warned they can be fined $200 each time for violating the term of the contract.  (For more information on this and other noise abatement program details, please visit the DPD’s website at www.seattle.gov/dpd.  For other municipalities in Washington State, your city’s website should provide similar information on noise abatement programs.)

Many municipalities tackle the issue of noise in a community by implementing city ordinances to control everything from public nuisance noise to construction noise and even garbage collection noise as discussed earlier.  Such ordinances measure noise by decibel (a unit used to express the intensity of a sound wave).   For example, if a person is making noise, say with his/her car horn or voice or other instrument in excess of an allowable decibel at a certain distance from a home owner’s property line, that could be a violation of a given city ordinance.  The noisemaker could be fined for the violation to deter recurrence.  Oddly enough, this applies to animals too, such as the ordinance that forbids the ownership of roosters in certain areas because their crowing exceeds allowable decibels.  (Although I grew up hearing a rooster crowing outside my window and rather like it, one person’s music may be another’s noise nuisance.)

For those in home owner associations with single family detached houses, the governing documents plus the city ordinances can be effective way to control noise.  In another example, ordinances also cover noise abatement for too-loud air conditioners and heat pumps. If they are loud enough to be measured in excess of allowable decibels per the city ordinance, the owner could be fined.  To avoid a fine, the suggested solutions from DPD include installing a quieter unit or moving the existing unit from between houses or sensitive receivers.

If you are in a community association that has shared walls, however, and if neighbors are the noisemakers, options seem to be much more limited.  First, you must begin with your governing documents and rules and regulations.  Depending on the source of the noise, you may be able to negotiate with your neighbor for a mutually viable solution- especially if it’s loud music or heavy footsteps upstairs.   If negotiation fails and the noise issue is a serious one, take your issue to the Board and know if the association’s governing documents set out a solution for your particular noise problem.  And sometimes, like with my friendly Mr. Fed Ex driver, one must learn to accept the limitations on noise abatement in community living.

By Cynthia Jones, Esq.

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