Read an Excerpt
How to Deal With Noisy Neighbors
Adapted from the book Homeowner's Rights by Mark Warda © 2003
Noise can be one of the worst neighbor problems you can have. While you can forget about your neighbor's fence being over the line or his rusting truck in the front yard, a noise that keeps you from getting enough sleep or that keeps you on edge can make you physically ill. When we are not allowed the quiet we need for sleep and relaxation, it can affect many aspects of our lives including our relationships and our health.
However, not all noise that is bothersome is illegal. Courts have ruled that no one is entitled to absolute quiet in the enjoyment of his property. Some of the things that determine if a noise is allowable are the following.
• Is it a reasonable or unreasonable noise?
• Is it occurring at a reasonable or unreasonable time of day?
• Who was there first?
The level of allowable noise is usually what is customary to the community. The amount of noise considered a nuisance in a quiet suburban community may be considered normal in an industrial area.
Some activities in modern society cannot be performed without noise. The courts take this into account when deciding if a noise is a nuisance. For a noise to be considered a nuisance, it must be considered "unreasonable" and annoying to a person of "ordinary sensibilities." Usually there is no exact definition of either of these terms. In most cases it will just depend on what a judge, jury, or law enforcement officer determines at the time.
In an attempt to make the laws more precise, some municipalities have defined prohibited noise as being above a certain decibel level, at a certain distance. There are electronic devices that can measure noise. These can tell you if a noise is above an allowable level.
Some areas have laws both defining a certain decibel level as being illegal and saying that noise must not be unreasonable. This makes it easier to stop an offending noise, because even if it is not above the specific limit, it can still be prohibited if a judge can be convinced that it is unreasonable for the time and place. In some cities, the laws list certain noises that are specifically prohibited, such as car horns (except in an emergency) or dogs that bark continuously. Some states have laws limiting the noise of certain activities (transportation, industry). The federal government has the Noise Control Act. It is contained in Title 42, United States Code, Sections 4901 through 4918 and provides for both criminal penalties and citizen suits, and covers railroads, motor carriers, and others.
After losing cases against noisemakers, some people have tried suing over the vibration from the noise, arguing that the vibrations have trespassed on their property. This theory has not been successful, as courts have held that noise and vibrations are not things that can trespass.
In condominiums, apartments, and planned developments, noise can be easier to control because the rules are often written to forbid noise that is bothersome to other residents, even if it is not unreasonable. Because these are private areas, they can limit the rights of residents much more than the government can. However, one question could be whether the rule was in effect before the offender bought his property. If so, it would clearly be enforceable. If the rule was passed later (in response to the noise), his rights would depend on whether the original restrictions or state law allows such modifications to the rules development rules.
NOTE: A noise is not necessarily deemed a nuisance just because a person is unusually sensitive to noise and is upset by it.
In Brookline, Pennsylvania, there was a woman who would play her marimba on the front porch for long periods of time. She played it so loudly that it disturbed the whole neighborhood. She also would play songs intending to disturb particular neighbors. For instance, when one man entered or left his home, she would play "Jingle Bells" on the marimba because he resembled Santa Claus. She would also play "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" to annoy an Irishman, and play "Anchors Aweigh" to annoy a naval officer living in the neighborhood. An elderly woman, was always greeted with "Little Old Lady" whenever she entered or left her home.
In this case, the court held that while playing the marimba is not generally a nuisance, because she had played it so loudly, for such long periods of time, and at unreasonable hours, it had injured her neighbors and was a nuisance. The court forbade her from playing at certain hours and strictly limited the number of hours she could play in one day. The court also forbade her from playing Jingle Bells, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Anchors Aweigh, and Little Old Lady with the intention of annoying and disturbing her neighbors.
Part of the requirement that noise not be unreasonable is determined by the time of day. What is a problem in the middle of the night, may be perfectly legal during the day. As one judge wrote:
"Mankind needs to sleep for a succession of several or more hours once in every twenty-four hours, and nature has provided a time for that purpose, to wit, the nighttime, and by common consent of civilized man the night is devoted to rest and sleep, and noises which would not be adjudged nuisances, under the circumstances, if made in the daytime, will be declared to be nuisances if made at night and during the hours which are usually devoted by the inhabitants of that neighborhood to sleep."
The biggest problems arise when people who need to sleep in the daytime live near neighbors who are noisy. In most cases, the law tries to balance the rights of both parties. The person making the noise, in most cases, feels he has just as much right to use his property as he wishes, as the person wanting to sleep in the daytime. The special need of one property owner (the sleep in the daytime) is usually not a good reason to take away the legal rights of another property owner (to use his property as he wishes).
If you have a noise problem because you need to sleep in the daytime, get an opinion from a neutral party as to whether the noise is unreasonable without considering that someone wants to sleep. As discussed earlier, there are often ways to solve a neighbor problem on your own. If simple earplugs are not enough to allow you to sleep with the noise, there are electronic noise suppression headphones that may help to shut out the noise.
A gentleman was keeping some roosters at his residence in Shreveport, Louisiana. This was not appreciated by at least two of his neighbors. A neighbor and her son claimed they were awakened each morning at five o'clock a. m. (four o'clock Standard time) by the roosters. The owner did not solve the problem. The neighbors filed a lawsuit asking for $500 in damages and for the court to order him to stop his roosters from awakening them. However, the court did not see it their way and ruled that the crowing of a rooster at the break of day would not be a nuisance to persons of ordinary sensibilities and normal habits and tastes.
Who Was First?
If you move into a house and are disturbed by noise that had occurred long before you arrived, you will have a more difficult case than if the noise started after you moved in. This is especially true if none of the other neighbors have previously complained about the noise. (An exception would be in California where you can sue the seller if he didn't tell you about the noise.)
Generally, courts do not like to give newcomers more rights than the people who have been in an area. Exceptions are made where something is clearly unreasonable, but was never complained about before.
In North Dakota, a woman bought the land next door to a wind generator and moved a mobile home onto it. Two years later she sued the owner of the generator claiming it was a nuisance and that it violated the restrictive covenants on the property. Even though the sound at her home was measured at a level that would be irritating and stressful, after a trial and appeal to the Supreme Court of North Dakota, she lost. The factors against her were that she moved to the claimed nuisance; waited two years before complaining; and, then only complained after her husband and the owner had gotten into some conflicts. The court also found that the restrictive covenants had been abandoned by the developer and the other residents of the subdivision.