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When tension starts to build

Construction noise, dirt and dust can upset neighbors. Often, the solutions are buried in municipal codes.

November 23, 2003|Susan J. Diamond | Special to The Times

The construction site on the hill is a major aggravation to the neighborhood. Trucks and tractors come and go, moving dirt around the huge lot. The noise is loud and constant. Mud and debris collect in ditches out on the street. And a final insult: The construction company has hung a banner with its name writ large between two poles about 20 feet above the driveway entrance -- the kind of sign that more often says "Welcome to Camp Minnehaha."

"People were complaining that it's ugly and they don't want a billboard advertising some construction company over their street," said Bob Gale, who's active in one of the Pacific Palisades homeowners' associations. On behalf of the neighborhood, he asked the construction company to remove the sign, figuring that courtesy and goodwill could solve the problem. The site superintendent's response, then and now, was that he won't remove the sign unless the neighbors cite a specific regulation that requires him to do so.

There are many regulations covering issues related to residential construction sites -- hours, noise, debris in the street, even signs. But for anyone other than a contractor or a building official, it's not easy to find a specific rule -- in this case, Los Angeles City Building Code section 91.6216.5 and Zoning Code section 12.22C20(j) -- in the thousands of pages of regulations. Finally a call to the Department of Building and Safety sign division, elicited those regulations: There can be a total of 12 square feet of signs in the frontyard and they can be on walls or fences but not hoisted in the Camp Minnehaha position.

Many neighborhoods have to deal with such annoyances, given the construction activity around Southern California. In Los Angeles County alone, there will be an estimated 9,908 single-family housing permits issued this year, compared to 8,217 in 2002 and 4,375 a decade ago, according to the Construction Industry Research Board in Burbank.

In the hottest residential markets, many homes are built by developers, who, unlike people building their own dream houses, don't need to establish lasting bonds with the neighbors.

Common complaints involve the work hours and noise, then the dirt, debris and the number of trucks -- usually those blocking a complainer's driveway. Actually, "you don't have to worry about the stop time," said Lou Parker, executive vice president of the Southern California Builders Assn., "because most are off the job by 3:30."

It's the start time, and not just when the work starts but "when somebody delivers something before 7 a.m., not thinking that 7 is the start time," said Jan Helf, code enforcement coordinator for Irvine. "Or trucks will be idling outside the site at 6 or 6:30, waiting."

Addressing complaints

The California Building Code and associated municipal codes include regulations covering almost all such complaints, and city and state regulations are closely related.

"All cities must enforce the California code," explained Chuck Daleo, a building consultant who was a building official with L.A. County for 21 years and with the city of Fullerton for 13. "They can amend it to be more restrictive but not more lenient, reflecting differences in climate, geography or topography." Or just citizen preference.

The hours for residential construction in Los Angeles, for example, are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays (6 p.m. for grading) and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. In Irvine, hours are more limited -- 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. And in Santa Monica, known for putting people above commerce, the hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Some contractors limit their Santa Monica jobs, given what they say are particularly stringent rules on everything from work hours to trash disposal, increasing the building time and their costs.

The main point of building codes is safety, assuring that what goes up won't fall down. Therefore, the codes tend to focus on materials and construction. But they also address the safety of people near the site during construction.

Requirements for fencing property during demolition and construction, for example, keep debris and building materials safely inside and keep out interlopers who may do harm and suffer harm.

Some regulations are as concerned with comfort as they are with safety, because nuisance and threat are not so far apart. Dust control measures, which involve wetting down surfaces, are required in residential areas during excavation, earth-moving, sand-blasting and demolition because dust is not just unpleasant but also hazardous to health.

There are also rules against accumulation of trash and/or debris on the property, the sidewalk, the parkway and the street beyond, anywhere it might "interfere with or obstruct the free passage of pedestrians or vehicles." If a sidewalk is being replaced, alternative passage must be provided.

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