By: Carol A. Sigmond
New York City is a noisy place, busy with speeding large trucks and seemingly constant construction projects. In an effort to address noise in general, the City Council established a noise code with some special rules for construction projects.
The New York City Noise Code (Noise Code) addresses only the amount of noise, not the frequency. This lapse means that very low frequency noises and very high-pitched noises may actually exceed safe levels without breaching the Noise Code. As discussed below, this deficiency in the Noise Code will not preclude you from seeking injunctive relief, with complete data and proper engineering support.
Noise from a construction project may not be more than 10 decibels above the background noise in your space. To give you an idea of what the levels of noise are, normal conversation should register about 60 decibels. A nearby vacuum cleaner may register 70 decibels. A garbage disposal at close range may register 80 decibels.
Noise readings are not arithmetic; they are logarithmic. This means that sounds at 60 decibels are roughly twice as loud as those at 50 decibels and roughly half as loud as sounds at 70 decibels.
Due to the general levels of noise in New York City, background levels are often between 50 and 70 decibels, depending on the specific location, the time of day and the general street conditions. Most of our offices will register about 60 decibels.
People are bothered by noise levels starting somewhere above 76–77 decibels. This would be the sound of a nearby passenger car traveling at 65 mph or being next to a powerful garbage disposal while in operation.
Due to the amount of Manhattan schist or granite, many construction projects involve chopping or removing rock. There are also projects involving the demolition of concrete or jackhammering. Construction projects also have drilling, hoist operations, generators and other noise sources. Rock drilling, rock chopping or jackhammering may reach 95 decibels. Power equipment may reach 110 decibels. Sandblasting may be as loud as 115 decibels.
If you are adjacent to a project and you and your neighbors find the noise disturbing, there is a reasonable possibility that the noise is more than 10 decibels above background. In order to establish this, sound monitors and vibration monitors need to be installed. This should be done under the guidance of a licensed professional structural engineer with noise monitoring experience.
The residents of the affected areas must assist in fixing the standard background noise. Then, when the noise levels jump, the residents must further assist by notifying the engineer of exactly what they are hearing and observing. Once the base lines are set and the engineer has the patterns established, determining the difference between the loud noises and the background noise is a matter of measurement on the sound engineer’s equipment.
Once the difference is 10 decibels or more, the Noise Code has been violated and remedies are available: the noise may be reported with the supporting data to the Department of Environmental Protection or you may seek an injunction and damages. As noted above, since the Noise Code does not consider frequency, only decibels, there are noises at higher and lower frequencies that are irritating or even dangerous to your hearing at lower decibel levels. For these noises, which are often from musical instruments, you will need additional technical assistance to provide evidence on when the lower and higher frequencies are irritating or harmful to humans.
The advantage of reporting the conditions to the city is that the investigation becomes a public investigation at public expense. That is also the negative of reporting to the city: you are not able to control when the inspectors come and you are at the mercy of the inspector as to whether there will be action.
If you seek an injunction, then you are in control of the timing and relief sought. Also, an inspector coming after work hours or on a date when the job is shut down will not harm your evidence. The disadvantage is that you have to fund the litigation. However, under the Noise Code, there are statutory damages available, so you may be able to recover the investigative costs. Injunctive relief may be available for both excess decibels and frequency issues. You will need to provide the hard data showing the sound frequency, decibels or both in the form of expert affidavits, so your sound engineers need to be licensed and experienced.
If there is any communication between you and the offending contractor/developer, you might want to have a meeting. Noises on construction sites, particularly related to rock removal or demolition may be controlled by reducing the force of the hammer, reducing the sizes of the equipment, baffling and similar measures. Contractors do not like these measures, as the work slows down and becomes more costly. However, working slower may be preferable to an injunction that stops the work altogether.
This column presents a general discussion. This column is not intended to provide legal advice. You should consult your attorney for specific legal advice.