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Noise complaints are common – but against the board?
The Westchester County village of Larchmont is a quiet place. Well, that depends on whom you ask. If you talk with one longtime shareholder in a medium-sized co-op, her building is one of the noisiest places on earth – and it’s not because of her neighbors making noise. It’s because of the board.
Everyone has heard about noise. Complaints about undue racket disrupting the quality of life for a shareholder or unit-owner are generally the most common among residents and also the most difficult to resolve. They often pit neighbor against neighbor, with the board stepping in to resolve these inter-apartment disputes when things get out of hand. Generally, it’s a problem between residents.
But not always. What happens when the board, acting on behalf of the building, is the culprit, creating noise where silence had once reigned? What should a board do if its actions become the subject of a noise complaint?
The Silence of the Booster
That was the situation in Larchmont, where the seven-member board stood accused of breaking a sound barrier and then ended up taking extraordinary measures to satisfy the shareholder’s complaints about excessive noise and/or vibrations in her first-floor unit.
It all started in 1992, when the board, trying to take advantage of declining natural gas prices, put in a new “interruptible” fuel service system; one piece of equipment – the booster – was located near her apartment. After the booster was installed in the basement to maintain gas pressure, natural gas became the primary fuel for the heating system. When the outdoor temperature dipped below six degrees, the system switched to No. 4 heating oil. And that’s where the trouble began. The resident of the studio apartment directly above the booster complained that it was making excessive noise.
This board took three important steps to deal with the issue:
Step 1. It responded to the complaint cordially. After receiving the initial complaint, the board invited the unhappy shareholder to visit the boiler room and view the booster. Several board members and William Archer, president of Archer Property Management, which manages the co-op, also visited her apartment, but did not hear any excessive noise.
Step 2. It sought out the facts by bringing in an expert to measure the sound levels. A sound “detective” brought in by the board said the noise was at acceptable levels. A noise expert brought in by the resident disagreed. The co-op board members concluded that the complaint was groundless. They were sympathetic and polite to the woman, sources say, but the matter was settled. The woman continued to complain and finally took the board to court in 1994. She lost.
Peace returned soon afterward, however, when declining oil prices led the board to resume using No. 4 oil; the booster was shut off. But that fragile peace ended when the price of natural gas dipped again last winter and the board re-fired the booster.
Step 3. It was reasonable but firm, showing the owners it had made every effort to cope with the complaint. In late October, the distraught shareholder hired an engineer to monitor the noise from the booster. The engineer’s findings did not bolster the shareholder’s case. “Essentially, they said everything was done according to code, and properly,” says Archer. “In my view, the shareholder is overreacting, and there’s nothing to be fixed.”
There are many ways a board, in the course of improving or maintaining the building, can make changes that irk residents. Robert Tierman, a partner in the law firm of Litwin & Tierman, represents a co-op that installed a deck on the roof for use by all shareholders – only to have the residents on the top floor hire a lawyer to deal with their complaints of excessive noise coming through their ceilings and windows.
In another case, a co-op became involved in a lawsuit where a shareholder did not pay maintenance for many months because he claimed that his apartment was too noisy because of its location near a building-wide ventilation unit.
“The tension really comes between the collective desires or needs of the building, against a limited number of people,” Tierman says. “As long as the co-op board isn’t reducing the value of apartments or violating the law, and as long as it’s showing some degree of reasonable restraint – not allowing rooftop parties 24/7, for instance – the general rule is that you have to subject yourself to the decisions of the board. On the other hand, if noise and vibrations are severe enough, they can override the board’s decision.”
In the case of the deck, the unhappy shareholders listed 10 demands to correct the rooftop noise problem. The board implemented some, Tierman says, and rejected others. An issue that was “incendiary” at the outset was thus defused. “The residents accepted the compromises,” he says, “and both sides backed down and reached an agreement.”
Tierman cautions people with noise complaints against hastily hiring a lawyer and taking the board to court. “The courts want to look at noise complaints only if the board is acting in bad faith, out of spite, or if there’s double-dealing,” he says. “If you’re going to go for it, you’d better be sure you’re going to win. If you lose, you’re branding your apartment as one with a problem. If a future purchaser looks at the board’s meeting minutes, all of a sudden they’re tipped off to the problem.”
Boards must realize that they have an obligation to address complaints about noisy building systems. “It’s very complicated when a building system causes noise,” says Maryann Caputo, president of Tribor Management. “Not fun stuff. Roof fans [which ventilate windowless bathrooms and kitchens in many postwar buildings] are a common source of complaints. If a fan is wheezing and dying, you have to get the board to replace it, even if it’s not in the budget.
If the complaints persist after you’ve replaced the fan, you can tinker with timers that can turn it on and off, so it’s not running 24/7. You’ve got to be careful that you’re not hurting the system or failing to ventilate properly. I have buildings, for example, where they shut off the fans from 11 P.M. till 4 A.M., when most people are asleep.”
But few solutions are perfect. Luckily for boards, they don’t always have to be. “Sometimes, if someone tries to address a complaint, it’s helpful – even if the solution isn’t perfect,” Caputo says. “The bottom line for most people is feeling that their complaint is being heard and someone’s trying to deal with it. That’s half the battle.”
In the end, professionals advise boards to take all reasonable steps – but also realize that one person’s rationality is another’s lunacy. Archer says the experience has offered him a valuable lesson about managing a multi-unit dwelling.
“What this has taught me is that you have to make every effort to pacify a shareholder who has a complaint,” says Archer about the Larchmont cooperative. “This board certainly did that. I think the board did way more than they were required to do. But she shouldn’t be living in an apartment building, where noises between floors are common. Some people should live on farms.”