Noise pollution is anything but music to the ears

Summer afternoons in the country are supposed to be quiet, restful affairs filled with the sounds of buzzing bees, barbecues and the occasional nicker of a horse, but that’s not what Tres Pinos resident Chuck Doglione was hearing.

Beginning in July 1988, motorcycle racers began taking over the San Benito County Fairgrounds track near his home, running races from early in the morning until late evening, sometimes past 11pm, shattering the idyll of his and two others’ homes for up to 12 weekends a year, mostly in the summer. Neighborly contact with the Fair Committee over a period of more than four years failed, and so began a legal battle that lasted for more than four years, reaching as high as the State Appellate Court before the State Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the Fair committee. Still, Doglione said he would do it all over again.

“All you’d have to do would be to be there for one race, sitting on my porch, and you would understand,” he said of the case, which did not come to a final resolution until January 1996. “You couldn’t carry on a regular conversation. The noise and the dirt and the smell all travel this way even though I live probably a quarter mile away.”

Noise pollution similar to what Doglione and the two other plaintiffs in the case experienced is not uncommon in suburban regions, where the growing population leads to greater crowding and potential for nuisance behavior. But California residents are protected under the state’s health and safety codes, which recognize noise as “a serious hazard to the public health and welfare” and hold that “exposure to certain levels of noise can result is physiological, psychological and economic damage.”

In most cases, though, noise in a neighborhood is caused not by new development, but by neighbors themselves. Loud parties, screaming children, barking dogs or other disruptive behaviors are also considered noise pollution and, in terms of the penal code, disturbance of the peace.

Most suburban residents live by social norms that encourage quiet hours between 10pm and 7am, according to Gilroy Police Department Sgt. Kurt Svardal, but the code governing “disturbance of the peace” is not defined in hours. Most counties or cities establish noise ordinances spelling out exceptions to these norms and limiting some noisy activities. For instance, in Santa Clara County, construction workers are able to labor at varying degrees of excessive volume from 7am to 7pm Monday through Saturday, and at noise levels in line with neighborhood standards outside of those hours.

“There’s nothing that says loud and unreasonable behavior has to have timeframes, but I think if you get in front of a jury of people, they’re not generally as willing to convict (on things that fall out of those quiet hours),” said Svardal.

Noise issues within a neighborhood have the power to cause deep conflicts between neighbors, but unless the problem is consistent, Svardal recommended talking to the offending neighbor first.

“A lot of times we go out and the person just didn’t know that they were bothering their neighbors,” said Svardal. “They’ll say things like, ‘I wish they’d just called me,’ which is really possible if there’s a little courtesy and some simple dialogue.”

While it’s not always possible to stop noise pollution with a phone call, the issue can be addressed if it continues. When neighbors call the police with a noise complaint, the offender must first be warned. Only on the second call may a police officer issue a ticket, said Svardal.

If a neighbor continues to repeat the offending behavior in the future, Morgan Hill land use attorney Bruce Tichinin suggested calling the police regularly in order to establish a pattern of behavior on the offender’s part.

“Call the police, ask them to make reports, keep a record of all of the complaints for yourself and make sure you correspond in writing with the people engaging in the nuisance behavior,” said Tichinin.

With a solid record in place, a police neighborhood resources officer may be able to help the parties involved resolve the dispute, or it can be taken to a private or county-appointed moderator in lieu of litigation.

If the offender is not receptive to any change, litigation is a stage of last resort, but one that most homeowners won’t want to get to, according to Doglione.

Not only is it expensive, it’s time consuming.

“If they’re going to take that route, they have to be very patient, but also straightforward and they have to make sure they follow through with everything to keep the ball rolling,” said Doglione. “You have to keep the pressure on the people that are monitoring the noise – you need to document your position and monitor it, and you have to follow through to make sure they’re monitoring.”

Tres Pinos resident Greg Renz, a small farmer who was the chief plaintiff named in the Fair case, said the experience was trying, but he followed through with it to protect the one stable investment he had: His home.

“It was, in reality, taking a easement across your property, which could be really harmful to a small businessman like me,” said Renz. “Once something like that is there, with the real estate laws the way they are, you have to declare it, so you have to tell someone who’s looking to buy your property at a fair market rate that there’s going to be racing or a utility or a dump right by them.”

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