There are many ways a co-op board or condo association board, in the course of improving or maintaining the building, can make noise-related 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.
Then there was the long-running situation in the Westchester County village of Larchmont, where a co-op's seven-member board stood accused creating excessive noise in a shareholder's 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 the equipment was making too much noise.
This board took three 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, and to shut the booster 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."
Fanning the Flames
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."
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