While barking dogs, loud music and construction noise are unavoidable in an urban environment, there comes a point when the noise becomes excessive. The State of California recognizes that some types of noise are a serious health hazard and has enacted laws to abate noise pollution as much as possible. The California Noise Control Act gives individual cities the power to set strict rules for noise reduction and enforce them as necessary. Because each community sets it own ordinances, there is no single, uniform code covering the entire state.
In most communities, excessive, unnecessary and annoying noise is subject to regulation. Rules take various forms, such as restricting the hours of construction and garbage collection, restricting amplified noise on bus tours, and preventing night clubs from operating at noise levels that would disturb the local residents. Some cities have set specific decibel limits on some of the common noisy activities. In San Francisco, for example, the noise from powered construction tools may not exceed 80 decibels 100 feet from the construction site boundary.
Sound Level Measurement
To determine whether noise levels are violating city ordinances, city regulators will measure the decibels using a sound level meter. For compliance purposes, the noise is usually measured in a location where people usually hear the sound at a certain threshold distance. For example, if someone complains about sound at night, San Francisco regulators will measure the sound 50 feet from the property line of the property where the sound is emitted. The baseline standard is called the "ambient" sound level. This is the lowest sound level repeating itself during a ten-minute period in a particular location. Noise is generally excessive when it reaches a certain number of decibels above the ambient level for the time of day.
Most cities regulate the sounds that can be heard through apartment walls, floors and ceilings. For example, the Palo Alto code states that apartment occupiers should not be able to hear more than six decibels above ambient levels from three feet away from a shared wall, floor or ceiling when all the doors and windows are closed. If a neighbor's party exceeds these noise levels, it's time to call the police. Most cities operate some type of "good neighbor" policy. When someone complains about neighbor sounds, whether it is covered by a specific regulation or not, the police will try to get people talking to resolve the issue before they involve the enforcement agencies.
Responsibility for Noise Enforcement
Each California city has delegated the responsibility for enforcing noise ordinances to various agencies, depending on where the noise originated. In Los Angeles, for example, the Bureau of Street Services handles noise complaints about construction and traffic, the Department of Animal Regulation handles complaints about animals, and the police department handles disturbances related to people. Anyone who violates noise ordinances may be charged with infractions or misdemeanors, depending on the severity of the offense.
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