By Sabina Mollot
In New York City, especially in Manhattan, construction noise is usually impossible to escape. This is even true early in the mornings or later in the evenings at some construction sites, for what, to sleep-deprived neighbors, at least appears to be non-emergency work.
On East 14th Street, Stuyvesant Town residents have complained of late night Con Ed work. Meanwhile, on East 23rd Street, Peter Cooper residents have been dealing with on-and-off pre-sunrise construction relating to the VA Medical Center’s construction of a flood wall.
The canned response to New Yorkers facing what they consider excess noise is to call 3-1-1. However, that doesn’t always work because if work is being done at night, an inspection isn’t going to be scheduled until another day and at that time, there may not be an unacceptable level of noise.
This point and others were recently argued by two City Council members, Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos, according to a transcript from a hearing about legislation that would make it mandatory for a building project’s noise mitigation plan to be posted publicly at the site. The legislation would also require the plan to be filed with the Department of Environmental Protection and posted on the department’s website.
Currently, all construction sites must have a noise mitigation plan, which includes the timeline of the project, scope of work and the type of equipment that will be used.
However, noted Garodnick at the hearing, which took place on September 25, “These plans are not currently publicly available to neighbors of construction sites who wish to stay informed of what kind of noise they can expect.”
Additionally, he said, they don’t have to be filed with the DEP, which in turn means that any official looking to inspect the plan must personally go to the site to see it. If the plan is not at the site, the official may end up getting referred to a construction officer. Garodnick called this process “a clunky system” that runs counter to other departments’ attempts to modernize their record-keeping in recent years.
Requiring noise mitigation plans to be filed with the DEP, he added, “would add transparency and accountability for people affected by construction noise and would allow DEP to be a more efficient enforcer when there are questions about the level of noise produced by the site.”
Kallos added that what he’s been hearing is that inspections may be conducted at a site four days after a complaint is lodged. “And then they won’t actually issue the violation seeing as the noise may not be occurring four days later and so we introduced this legislation in hopes of setting some sort of timeline,” he said.
At the hearing, a representative from the DEP said the department supports the bill as well as another piece of Council legislation being floated that would require the department to enact some rules to have inspections at the times noise occurs or is repeated.
Council members also heard from Patrick Wehle, assistant commissioner for external affairs of the Department of Buildings, who told City Council Committee of Environmental Protections Chair Costa G. Constantinides that the average time frame to deal with construction noise complaints through his department was 17 days.
When Constantinides responded that this seemed a little long, in particular from neighbors with a sleeping baby or a sick family member, Wehle responded that this was a matter of “resources,” but still said his department performs 100,000 inspections annually.
Constantinides responded that he thought the reducing the 17-day average should be factored into the next city budget. Another speaker at the hearing, Angela Licata, deputy commissioner of sustainability at the DEP, said her department on average takes 5.6 days to respond to a complaint.
Another issue brought up at the hearing was limitations faced by the city in issuing violations even if there is a high level of noise but there’s an afterhours variance (AHV), which allows a contractor to work into the evenings.
“Let’s say it’s the loudest sound you can imagine,” Kallos said. “Let’s say it’s multiple gun shots at 200 decibels… Can you issue a violation if they have an after-hours variance and the work that they’re doing on the site is within scope?”
To this, Licata said no, the department couldn’t as long as the construction work was within the scope of its noise mitigation plan. Licata added that part of the problem was that the amount of construction has increased in the city in recent years and therefore so has the number of AHVs.
According to Wehle, often the reason for issuing an AHV is public safety, specifically that the construction would pose less of a risk to pedestrians and interfere less with traffic during off-hours. This could include work like crane hoisting or having trucks barrel in and out of a site.
Garodnick and Kallos’ legislation has yet to have a vote, but Garodnick said he expects it will soon and that he isn’t expecting there to be opposition to it, especially since the DEP supports it. He added that the bill wasn’t inspired by any particularly egregious construction site violation, but the fact that complaints about noise from new development never seem to stop.
“It was inspired by consistent problems throughout the district related to construction and our desire to find a way to help deal with it,” said Garodnick. On those projects’ mitigation plans, he added, “They are for some reason a closely guarded secret.”
Certain types of properties would be exempt from the legislation, such as one or two-family homes, convents and rectories.