by Mark Wellborn

City dwellers have come to expect (and accept) a certain level of noise during their day-to-day lives, however sometimes there is still noise (when too loud or too late) that is disruptive.

Noise disturbances have been an issue in DC for decades, and the city recently upped the ante in terms of enforcement when the Disorderly Conduct Amendment Act of 2010 went into effect this past February. The amendment in part states that “it is unlawful for a person to make an unreasonably loud noise between 10:00pm and 7:00am that is likely to annoy or disturb one or more persons in their residences.” The maximum penalties — 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine — are rather severe.

DC regulations distinguish excessive noise into three general categories. The first group are generally allowed “to be loud” at any time of day or night (e.g. railroad cars, emergency vehicles, public address systems, church bells, an umamplified voice). The second group are regulated not by their noise level, but are limited to certain times of day (weekday daytime hours and from 9am to 9pm on weekends and legal holidays). This usually includes power garden tools and tools for making improvements to personal property.

The third group of noises are the most regulated, and those that you will have the most success in stopping when they become too excessive. Examples in this group include musical instruments, stereos, mechanical equipment [i.e. air-conditioners, swimming pool equipment, fans], construction equipment, shouting vendors, and vehicle-mounted loudspeakers; these are regulated by volume, time of day and location.

Personally, I’m in favor of strong noise ordinances. This said, the new amendment seems problematic for two reasons.

The first problem is that DC regulations divides noise (as detailed above) into three groups, yet the new amendment seems to lay on top of all three of these groups. For second group, this amendment could cause some confusion as to what is acceptable times to create certain noises, and for the third group, the amendment shifts great weight to the “time” of the noise, where previously the regulation was a balance of volume, time and location of the noise.

The second problem is that one is left wondering “what happened” to measuring noise as an appropriate indicator of what is too loud. It is common for cities to have maximum decibel levels for acceptable noise and DC was no different in this regard. However the new amendment appears to strip this idea in favor of an undefined “unreasonably loud noise” level. One can see without too much imagination how one man’s unreasonably loud noise in another man’s “fun party.”

Knowing that noise issues will continue and that this new amendment will likely do little to curb disturbances to your sleep, the question remains, “What to do when the noise becomes too bothersome?”

My suggestion is to start with the more benign “neighborly tools” at your disposal and work upwards. If the noise is from a neighbor, knock on their door or leave them a note, bringing the problem to their attention. I recall in law school I temporarily sat my TV (“turned on”) on my living room floor while cleaning my apartment. What I didn’t know until the next day is that my putting the TV on the floor caused a of unnecessary noise for my downstairs neighbor.

If going directly to the source of the noise does not work (and you live in a condominium, cooperative or home owners association) try going to the manager or the board.

If the noise is excessively loud and/or late (i.e. loud party still going strong at 1:00am, call the police. The police can and will shut the party down. I live in a densely populated part of DC and I’ve had great success when calling the police for late parties. Their arrival on the scene always seems to have a chilling effect on the distributive party.

Several years ago I had a neighbor who had a dog who barked for hours and hours. I called DC Animal Control, they investigated and that was enough to change the dog owner’s routine.
If the noise comes from a nearby business, a call and letter (repeat as often as necessary) to the ABC Board (if they have a liquor license) and to the DC Consumer and Regulatory Affairs office requesting an inspector visit for loud noise disturbances will help. A call to your council member and the mayor’s office is worth the effort but don’t expect too much.

If the noise makers are tenants, contact the landlord. If the landlord ignores you, call the District and determine if the landlord has a business license for renting the house or apartment, and if they have a certificate of occupancy for the space. If they lack both or either, your ability to gain the landlord’s attention just increased markedly.

All in all, the best solution is to go directly to the noise maker and negotiate a solution. For instance, I negotiated an agreement that my neighbors would tell me a couple of weeks in advance of their next party, and that they would close the party down at midnight. With this plan in place, I planned accordingly, knowing that next Friday was not the night to stay home and
read a book. As with most neighbor issues, communication is the best tool. When that fails, call the police.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/noise/3286

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