Noisy neighbors are one of the biggest problems affecting California communities. As individuals participate in the hustle and bustle of daily activities, most want to return home for a peaceful night of rest and relaxation. Unfortunately, neighborhood activities can interfere with these plans, causing resentment and anger among neighbors. Some activities are permitted, while others are deemed unacceptable and could result in a cause for action against an individual. This article takes a closer look at how to handle neighborhood noise, examining your rights as a tenant or landlord and the steps you should take when a neighbor is too loud.
*Note: The guidance provided below was inspired by the book Neighborhood Law, released by attorneys Emily Doskow and Line Guillen.
Laws Against Noise
All landlords and tenants have the right to live quietly in their homes. However, methods for measuring noise vary among communities, and individuals should consult their local ordinances to fully understand their rights.
Most ordinances classify ways to recognize noise disturbance. For example, they might identify decibel level limits, laws regarding “quiet times” in a city or community, or actions that are considered disturbing. They primarily refer to such occurrences as “unreasonable noise”; however, most do not define what unreasonable noise is. Instead, it is up to a third party to determine if the noise is unreasonable.
For those residing in California, we took the liberty of reviewing some ordinances that may help resolve your local noise problem. Let’s review.
“… (f) All Californians are entitled to a peaceful and quiet environment without the intrusion of noise which may be hazardous to their health or welfare. (g) It is the policy of the state to provide an environment for all Californians.” – California Health and Safety Code 46000
“Any of the following persons shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a period of not more than 90 days, a fine of not more than four hundred dollars ($400), or both such imprisonment and fine… (2) Any person who maliciously and willfully disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noise.” – California Penal Code 415
Santa Cruz County
(A) No person shall make, cause, suffer, or permit to be made any offensive noise.
(C) The following factors shall be considered when determining whether a violation of the provisions of this section exists:
(1) Loudness (intensity) of the sound…
(b) Night Hours. For purposes of this factor, a noise shall be automatically considered offensive if it occurs between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m….
(2) Pitch (frequency) of the sound, e.g., very low bass or high screech;
(3) Duration of the sound;
(4) Time of day or night;
(5) Necessity of the noise, e.g., garbage collecting, street repair, permitted construction activities;
(6) The level of customary background noise, e.g., residential neighborhood, commercial zoning district, etc.; and
(7) The proximity to any building regularly used for sleeping purposes.
Additional details and restrictions apply. – Santa Cruz County Chapter 8.30.010
Santa Cruz City
“(a) No person shall between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. make, cause, suffer or permit to be made any offensive noise (1) which is made within one hundred feet of any building or place regularly used for sleeping purposes, or (2) which disturbs, or would tend to disturb, any person within hearing distance of such noise.” – Santa Cruz City Chapter 9.36
Those living outside these jurisdictions should research their city and community to determine if their neighborhood noise is in violation of the local ordinance. If you live in a rental unit, apartment building, or planned community, you typically have additional rights as well. They are outlined in your lease agreement and CC&Rs (covenant, conditions, and restrictions), and should be referenced for additional reading.
How to Deal with a Noisy Neighbor
If your neighbor is disrupting your peace, you have the right to take action. However, instead of immediately calling the police, I recommend following these six steps outlined by Doskow and Guillan to ensure you are protected throughout the process.
- Talk to your neighbor.
The first step in any neighborly dispute should be to talk to your neighbor. Often, they are not aware of the noise disturbance they are causing and are responsive to your request.
- Write a complaint.
If your neighbor is unresponsive to your initial discussion, try sending them a complaint letter, either outlining the local ordinances they are violating or including a copy of the ordinance, along with your written complaint. Try to stay factual and inform them that they are in violation and you would like them to stop with their disruptive noise. Keep a copy of the letter you sent – you may need it later if legal action is taken.
- Complain to the landlord or association.
If talking directly to your neighbor does not work, and you live in an apartment building or planned community, reach out to your landlord or association. Inform them of the problem and the actions that you have taken. Often, they can help resolve the issue.
- Suggest mediation.
If open communication continues to fail, consider bringing in a third party to mediate the situation. This allows you to sit down with your neighbor to discuss the problem and determine how the issue can be managed in the future. In most cities, mediation services are available for free or at a nominal cost.
- Call the police.
Try to call the police when the disturbance occurs and provide them with the written evidence that you have attempted multiple times to resolve the problem. Some police use a decibel meter to measure the noise, while others ask the neighbor to keep it down. In some cases, the police may cite the noisy neighbor for violation. It is up to the local police to determine how to manage the dispute.
- Sue your neighbor.
If nothing seems to work, you may need to take legal action by suing your neighbor. You can sue for either monetary damages or to make the neighbor stop the noise (i.e., to have the nuisance abated). Most individuals take such incidents to small claims court, although regular court is also an option. You want to determine each option’s pros and cons and the limitations of each. For example, in California, an individual can collect up to $7,500 in small claims court; higher collections must be settled in regular court.
If the nuisance persists, you can continue to sue. A lawsuit typically resolves an issue with a neighbor if it burdens them financially.
Keeping Peace in the Neighborhood
No one wants to endure the hassle of neighborly disputes, and attempting to quiet a neighbor can be a daunting task. However, as a tenant or landlord, you should remember that you have the right to live in the community a certain way, and you have the right to quiet times. Don’t be afraid to defend yourself, but consider taking the steps mentioned above to resolve the issue calmly. Escalate things to court only when necessary.
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