Friday, April 25, 2008

Open a window these days, and you’ll find a lot more coming in than just a gentle spring breeze. To wit: early morning trash pickups, barking dogs, buzzing leaf blowers, chirping car alarms and your neighbor’s penchant for late-night Wagner, to name just a few. Fact is, life is just a whole lot noisier now.

According to a 1999 U.S. Census Bureau American Housing Survey, Americans named noise as one of the major problems in neighborhoods today, enough to make some people seriously consider moving. (Crime, odors and poor public services came in a distant second, third and fourth on the list, respectively.)

“It’s a very common neighborhood issue,” says Irvin Foster, executive director of the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM), which supports community mediation groups that tackle such sensitive issues as a karaoke-obsessed neighbor or the boom of late-night surround sound.

The problem? One person’s symphony is another’s, well, cacophony.

Wherever you live, you are probably living larger — and louder — than you were 20 or 30 years ago. Everything comes with noise these days. Whoever heard of recycling pickups a generation ago? Car alarms and surround sound didn’t exist. Leaf blowers weren’t even invented until the early 1970s. (Your average leaf blower, by the way, runs at about 95 to 105 decibels, louder even than a busy city street.)

Even the police have come up with a new noise-making device — a bass-blasting siren called “the rumbler.” The new siren is needed, police officials say, because so many civilians are on cell phones or iPods in intersections and regular sirens go unnoticed.

However, before you dial 311, consider this: Where you live in the greater Washington area can have a lot to do with whether you end up with your windows closed or open.

Noise ordinances can differ significantly by jurisdiction. In the District, for example, the city council is considering an amendment to the existing noise law that would limit the level of amplified noncommercial speechmaking, which has been protected up to now. Fairfax County considers televisions, radios, musical instruments and animal sounds noise disturbances when they are plainly audible across property lines or through partitions. (All complaints usually require monitoring to establish that a violation exists.)

Montgomery County boasts perhaps the most stringent noise ordinance in the area, with standards for decibel levels for everything from barking dogs to trash pickup explicitly spelled out. Enforcement personnel can issue hefty citations ($750) for repeat offenders for each offense and even stop-work orders in certain cases.

“We’re probably more comprehensive than any nearby jurisdiction,” says Stan Edwards, chief of Environmental Policy and Compliance for Montgomery County’s Environmental Protection Agency, which deals with about 250 noise-related complaints a year. Many more come into police departments throughout the Washington area.

Of course, none of the Washington-area jurisdictions comes close to New York City’s new noise ordinance, which limits decibel levels to 75 — quieter than a busy street — and even bans a certain rite of summer: the familiar tune from the curbside ice cream truck.

Hardest of all to combat may be that noise from your neighbors, especially the ones who simply don’t want to stop to listen.

“Unreasonable people won’t be considerate of other people,” says David Klavitter, a D.C. resident who has fought an ongoing battle with street preachers who use amplifiers to project their messages throughout his H Street neighborhood. Sometimes, he says, the noise is loud enough to make his windows rattle and his furniture shake. At first, Mr. Klavitter tried talking to the offenders but was “rudely rebuffed,” he says.

“I’m totally cool with the history of street preaching,” Mr. Klavitter says, “but there are people who are using amplifiers as weapons to force views and comments inside one’s home. There’s no escape.”

There was no refuge in the law either, since a loophole in the D.C. code protected amplified noncommercial speech. So he took things to the next level, working with other concerned neighbors to create a coalition of groups that is working to revise the code. (The D.C. Council plans to take up the issue in early May.) He also maintains a blog (www.questforquiet. that provides information about local noise ordinances.

“People have the right to the quiet enjoyment of their home,” he says. “City dwellers expect a certain level of urban noise, but we work to minimize unnecessary noise. Otherwise, everyone just has to up the ante to be heard.”

Is all that noise harmful? The AARP has reported that there are more people ages 45 to 64 with hearing loss (10 million) than there are people over 65 with hearing loss (9 million). More people are losing their hearing earlier in life, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one of the National Institutes of Health.

“Noise is really a very unhealthy thing,” says Bill Adler, a D.C.-based book publisher and author who operates a Web site ( that addresses noise-related issues and concerns in the greater Washington area. “It makes you tired, it makes you less productive, it gives you headaches. Plus, I don’t want to have to dodge a drowsy driver who’s been kept up because of late-night noise.”

Mr. Adler knows all about noise. He has experienced just about every kind of noise disturbance in the last few years in his Cleveland Park home, beginning with early morning recycling pickups that started well before the required 7 a.m. time.

“It woke me, it woke my wife, it woke my kids,” said Mr. Adler, who works from home and, so, gets to hear it all. “None of us liked losing 45 minutes of sleep.”

One of the more difficult things about noise, Mr. Adler notes, is that it frequently impacts just a handful of people, so it can be hard to find common cause with the person who has trouble with a barking dog or next-door leaf blower issue. In this case, if you can’t hear it, it’s not your issue.

Noise-control advocates also can find themselves at odds with free-speech advocates and others who don’t want government telling them when they can cut their lawns or blow their leaves.

“Noise is not a free-speech issue,” said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, a national organization with 52 chapters in 26 states. “But people do have the right to privacy and domestic peace.”

The noise problem has been compounded recently, says Richard Thompson of, a clearinghouse for Homeowner Associations, because of the large number of apartment-to-condominium conversions.

“Most older apartments don’t have adequate sound control to begin with,” Mr. Thompson says, “but there are a number of things a homeowners association can enact or require.”

These include eliminating hard flooring, restricting carpet removal to put in wood floors without adding a sound barrier, and using double drywall or other techniques to reduce sound. Mr. Thompson says there are a number of new products available, similar to those offered by, that can muffle or deaden sound in floors, walls and ceilings.

If you are considering purchasing a condominium that has been converted from a rental building, check for things like double walling between apartments (two, rather than one 2x4 foot stud wall absorbs more noise by creating an air gap and separating the walls), layers of drywall on each side, and the existence of resilient metal channels that can act as shock absorbers on walls and ceilings.

Also, return to your prospective new home at different times to see if sound levels change as neighbors come home and the weekend approaches. As a new resident yourself, you’ll certainly want to put down carpeting to limit noise, both from your downstairs neighbor’s state-of-the-art surround sound system and any tendency you might have to parade around in your stilettos.

“There are sensitive lifestyle issues involved here,” Mr. Thompson says. “All of these things feed into whether noise is an issue. Ultimately, it’s not the job of a homeowners association to take on these sensitive issues.”

Whether you are living in an apartment, town-house community or single-family home, problems with noisy neighbors shouldn’t start with a call to the police either, says Mr. Foster.

“Sometimes all you need to do is knock,” Mr. Foster says. “Have a conversation and see where it goes. Negotiating is the first step of conflict resolution.”

Mr. Foster notes that face-to-face communication is far more difficult these days, despite the range of communication devices available.

“People are more separated,” he says. “They’re less likely to knock on the neighbor’s door or talk across the driveway.”

They are also more likely to bring in a third party, often the police, to resolve noise-related issues. The police, in turn, often refer the parties to a community-mediation group, which will usually help resolve disputes for free.

In the end, if you’re lucky, the solution can be a simple one.

“Most noise issues are not malicious,” Mr. Edwards says. “People just don’t realize the impact they have.”

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