Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Sounding off on noise control: New rules to dampen sounds of construction, but critics fear added costs

The Real Deal
May 2007
By Marc Ferris

Despite frequent auditory assaults by construction projects, sirens, loud stereos and 3 a.m. garbage pickups, New York until rather recently had the country's oldest municipal noise code, which hadn't been overhauled since the mid-1970s.

The Bloomberg administration adopted the general Noise Control Code in 2005, a set of regulations that contains extensive provisions for construction, which accounts for almost half of all noise complaints the city receives. Now an expanded version, the Rules for Citywide Construction Noise Mitigation, written from scratch by a panel representing a variety of interests, has developers buzzing.

The detailed, 31-page document, which goes into effect on July 1, aims to further muzzle the sounds of construction sites.

Builders will be required to file a construction noise mitigation plan and post it on construction sites. It proscribes the use of noise tents and perimeter fences or portable barriers with acoustic insulation, and requires testing and certification of exhaust mufflers for all equipment with internal combustion engines.

Builders, of course, are worried about the bottom line.

"The administration has worked out a thoughtful compromise, but clearly costs will rise," said Chris Ward, managing director of the General Contractors Association of Greater New York and former commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, who helped write the regulations. "This provides a reasonable framework, but if the noise limits were really strict, nothing would get built."

The new code also recommends the use of low-impact pile drivers, jackhammers and blasting devices, like those used in Europe, including recommendations of specific brands and model numbers.

But by singling out particular types of equipment the city could increase costs, developers say.

"That gives manufacturers a license to raise their prices," said Bronx-based builder Bill Friedlich.

Over a dozen different pieces of equipment, including bulldozers, pile drivers, air compressors and "construction devices with internal engines," are subject to the strictures. The code also requires special measures for work conducted near schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

The typical method of breaking rock, largely unfeasible in the city, is dynamite. Even more so in the security-conscious post-Sept. 11 climate, "jackhammers are the alternative to dynamite, but there are lots of ways to break up rock," said Friedlich. "The quiet way is to add a chemical expander and wait several hours, but the pile of rock left over is only usable for gravel. It wastes resources and is the most expensive way to do the job."

Noise is moving to the forefront of environmental concerns, said Arline Bronzaft, a noise expert who helped draft the code. The new mantra for developers is to implement sound "source control," or sound buffering systems. Experts hope the catchphrase will become part of construction parlance and help raise consciousness of the issue.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection, which will enforce the code, employs 49 inspectors who responded to 41,944 noise complaints citywide in 2006; of these, 49 percent were construction-related.

"We are ready to enforce the law 24 hours a day, but it will be complaint-driven," said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Ian Michaels. "We're not going to look for noise violations on our own."

By far, the largest fine in the revised noise code is for nightclubs that exceed the standard decibel level for music.

The most onerous construction penalty, issued for working outside the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekday window without a special permit, is $3,500 maximum ($875 minimum) for the first violation and $10,500 maximum ($2,650 minimum) for the third violation. The responsible party at a construction site has three business days to address a violation before they are fined.

Property managers are also subject to the new code. Air circulation devices, like air conditioners and ventilation systems, may not exceed 42 decibels when measured in any nearby dwelling unit with the window or terrace open.

"We brought in a noise consultant to measure the decibels emitted by our conference room, and the sound of just the ambient noise in the room reached 48 decibels," said Marolyn Davenport, senior vice president at REBNY. "This code is a big deal because compliance is going to be difficult."

Yet the rules, predicated on the term "unreasonable noise," offer some wiggle room. Dump truck regulations state that "quieter back-up alarms shall be used in pre-2008 model year vehicles when practicable for the job site," for example, and the phrases "where appropriate" and "to the maximum extent possible" pepper the text.

Some of the construction provisions, particularly the one mandating that work take place between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, may be waived if the petitioner can demonstrate undue hardship. A special permit is required from the Department of Buildings, but these are easy to get, said city councilman Tony Avella of Queens, who says the rules should be tighter.

"The undue hardship clause makes the entire construction clause meaningless and unenforceable," he said. "Construction outside these time limits has become so pervasive that people are surprised to learn that it is illegal."

In March, Avella submitted a bill that attempts to close the loophole by repealing the clause.

Davenport at REBNY considers the bill unrealistic.

"It would be too dangerous to assemble a crane in the middle of Times Square during a weekday, and sometimes once you start work, you have to keep it going," she said. "The challenge for the city was to increase the quality of life without bringing construction to a halt, but these are tough standards to meet. It's a bit of a Big Brother approach."

Chris Ward, managing director of the General Contractors Association of Greater New York and former commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, helped write the new noise regulations.

From http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/airnoise.html:

Noise Code (Local Law 113 0f 2005)

The City's new noise code takes effect on July 1, 2007. Noise complaints continue to be the number one quality of life issue for New York City residents; however the City's old noise code was over 30 years old. The new legislation establishes a flexible, yet enforceable noise code that responds to the need for peace and quiet while maintaining New York's reputation as the "City that never sleeps".

* Noise Code (PDF)

Construction Noise Rules

The construction rules that were written in coordination with the new noise code will become effective on July 1, 2007. These rules establish a unique noise mitigation plan for each construction site, offering alternatives for contractors to continue their important construction tasks while having less noise impact on the surrounding environment.

* Construction Noise Rules (PDF)

(from citymayors.com) Concerning the new code:

Closing a loophole in current code provisions governing air conditioning and air circulating devices:

Air conditioning units on buildings, particularly clusters of them, are a growing source of noise complaints. Although the current code has a standard for air conditioning units of 45 decibels, it has been interpreted to apply only to a single unit. Because of this loophole, a cluster of air conditioning units could be generating 60 decibels of sound, but there would be no violation unless a single unit was creating more then 45 decibels. The updated code will create a uniform standard of 45 decibels for all installation of air conditioning units and mandate that existing units that exceed 50 decibels in the aggregate reduce their output by five decibels.

Simplify enforcement by using a 'plainly audible' standard instead of conventional decibel limits, which require use of a noise meter:

The existing code requires use of handheld decibel meters to issues many summonses. Although decibel meters are useful at obtaining acoustic measurements, they require frequent calibration, have a three decibels plus-or-minus margin of error, and the police officers, who are often responsible for enforcing the noise code, do not always have them available or have received the training necessary to operate them. The code adopts a standard of 'plainly audible' at specified distances. Police officers and noise inspectors will be allowed to issue summonses for a multitude of violations including car stereo, loud music, barking animals and loud mufflers using a common-sense standard and without a noise meter. This standard has been used and upheld by courts in many other states.

Increase enforcement effectiveness by limiting the Code's use of a standard of 'Unreasonable to a person of normal sensitivities': The existing code prohibits 'noise that is unreasonable to a person of normal sensitivities.' This standard is too vague to be consistently defensible. The new code replaces it with more specific and defensible standards. For areas not specifically covered in the code, sound is prohibited from any source that increases the ambient noise in a residence by ten decibels during the day and seven decibels at night.

§24-227 Circulation devices.
(a) No person shall operate or permit to be operated a circulation device in such a manner as to create a sound level in excess of 42 dB(A) when measured inside a receiving property dwelling unit. The measurement shall be taken with the window or terrace door open at a point three feet from the open portion of the window or terrace door.
(b) On and after the effective date of this section, when a new circulation device is installed on any building lot or an existing device on any building lot is replaced, the cumulative sound from all circulation devices on such building lot owned or controlled by the owner or person in control of the new device being installed or the existing device being replaced shall not exceed 45 dB(A), when measured as specified in subdivision a of this section. For a period of two years after the effective date of this section, this subdivision shall not apply to the replacement of a circulation device that was installed 16 on any building lot prior to the effective date of this section by a device of comparable capacity.
(c) Except as otherwise provided in subdivision b of this section, with respect to circulation devices installed on any building lot prior to the effective date of this section, the sound level limit of 42 dB(A) referred to in subdivision a of this section shall apply to each individual device except that if the cumulative sound from all devices owned or controlled by the same person on a building lot exceeds 50 dB(A), when measured as specified in subdivision a of this section, the commissioner may order the owner or person in control of such devices to achieve a 5 dB(A) reduction in such cumulative sound level within not more than 12 months after the issuance of such order.

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