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What to Do When Neighbors Are Too Loud

NEIGHBOR LAW: Second of six parts on problems of living in close confines. This week: Noisy neighbors. Next week: Trees get in the way.

September 15, 1991|CORA JORDAN | Jordan is an attorney and the author of "Neighbor Law: Trees, Fences, Boundaries and Noise," published by Nolo Press, Berkeley, from which this article is adapted with permission. "Neighbor Law" is available in bookstores or by calling (800) 640-6656 in California or (800) 992-6656 elsewhere in the United States. and

One of the most aggravating problems between neighbors is noise. There are two common reactions when your neighbor is making too much noise. The first is resignation: You hate the noise, but you do nothing. The second is anger: You lose your temper and call the police. But there are better ways to handle the situation.

Local noise laws. If you are a reasonable person and your neighbor is seriously bothering you with noise, the neighbor is probably violating a local noise law. Typical laws regulate the times, types and loudness of the noise you need not tolerate in the interests of being neighborly.

Decibel level laws. Many towns prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level. The limits are usually set according to the time of day--they're higher during daytime working hours. Limits are also affected by zoning. For example, higher levels are allowed at any time in industrial areas.

Noise can legally exceed the limit in emergencies, such as road repair. Also, some cities issue permits for certain activities, such as a construction project or street fair.

When an affected neighbor complains about severe noise, an officer places a machine that measures decibel levels on an estimated property line, or inside the home of the one who is complaining and takes a reading. If the noise level is above the decibel limit set out in the ordinance, the noisy neighbor will be warned or cited.

Quiet hours. Most local ordinances include "quiet times." A typical ordinance prohibits loud noises between 11 p.m. and 7 or 8 a.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. or midnight until 8 to 10 a.m. on Sundays and holidays.

Quiet hours also depend on the zoning for the particular spot. In a residential-only zone, for example, the morning hour may be 8 a.m. and in an industrial area 7 a.m. If any noise is loud enough to keep a reasonable person awake during these hours, it is probably illegal.

And having quiet times during specific hours does not mean that there are no noise restrictions at other times. Excessive and unnecessary noise can be a violation at any time.

Vehicle noise. Some laws restrict unnecessary vehicle noise. For example, anordinance may state that unnecessarily running a motorcycle engine is presumed to disturb a neighbor. And often there is a requirement that automobile mufflers be kept in good repair.

Most cities also prohibit honking a car horn for any reason except danger. This means that the daily early morning tooting across the street for the car pool violates the ordinance.

Barking dogs. Dogs are frequently regulated by separate noise ordinances. The dog that barks only at intruders or a passing fire engine is probably within legal limits. But the neighbors down the block who allow their dog to howl all night are violating the ordinance.

Unreasonable noise. If a noise that is driving you up the wall isn't specifically prohibited, it may still be illegal if it is "unreasonable." Most ordinances prohibit unreasonable noise, but they don't define it. The police may have to decide on the spot whether to issue a citation for the noise. If the noisy neighbor contests the citation, the final decision will be made by a judge.

Generally, to be unreasonable, a noise must be--in the mind of an average person--too loud, prolonged or disturbing under the circumstances. That usually boils down to common sense and community standards. For example, the child who practices the piano for an hour each day after school is normally not a candidate for a legal infraction. But a roaring swing piano concert at 11 every night may be.

If a neighbor's noise is excessive and deliberate, it may also be a violation of state laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct.

Other local laws on noise. If your town doesn't have a noise ordinance that addresses your particular situation, you may be able to solve a neighbor noise problem by using another local ordinance. Discharging firearms or shooting off firecrackers, for example, are forbidden by separate laws. Having too many animals on one property can violate another law. Even working on a broken car or building a boat for too long may be prohibited.

For example, imagine that your neighbor uses power tools in his garage all day Saturday and Sunday to repair lawn mowers. The power tools are enough to drive you wiggy, but this neighbor also tests each lawn mower after finishing work on it. In addition, other people are coming and going as they drop off and pick up mowers.

Your local noise law probably doesn't say anything about the tools or the mowers during the weekend days. But there may be zoning laws restricting your area to residential use. Any business conducted at home--such as the neighbor's little machine shop--that makes noise, attracts customers and creates traffic probably violates the zoning law.

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