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Davis, California

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Watts Legal

Question: Recently there has been a lot of construction on the street adjacent to my apartment. It was ok for a while but in the past couple of weeks, they having been working throughout the night. What’s worse is that about every hour (even at 3 or 4 a.m.) this giant construction vehicle drives down the street. It literally sounds like a tank rolling through our street and shakes the whole apartment.

Now obviously there are noise ordinances for wild parties going on next door or things of that nature. But is there anything I can do about this since they are government workers?

 – Jonathan B.

Davis, CA

Answer: Short answer: No, work performed by the city or by people under contract with the city to repair infrastructure, as well as street sweeping, garbage removal and similar activities, are exempt from the noise ordinance.

But you do have some options when it comes to annoying noise. Like most college towns, Davis’ noise ordinance is used primarily to protect its citizens from those “parties” that noisy college students tend to bring into formerly nice, quiet neighborhoods. Though the noise ordinance is most often used against loud music or noise from parties, the ordinance applies with equal force to any loud sounds.

Regarding construction work, the ordinance specifies that construction equipment can operate only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekends (if they get a special permit, they can start as early as 6 a.m., but the permit will be revoked if someone makes a noise complaint to the police). And even then, the equipment cannot make noise louder than 83 to 86 decibels. You said the construction is happening at 3 in the morning. That’s obviously outside these timeframes. But since it’s a city project, it’s exempt, as I said earlier.

For other types of noise, the ordinance includes a table describing the maximum allowable sound levels in different situations. It states that “no person shall produce, suffer or allow to be produced on any public or private property, sounds at a level in excess of those enumerated in” the table.

The table caps the volume at levels ranging from 50 to 65 decibels, depending on whether we’re talking about a housing area, commercial zone or a high traffic corridor (i.e. Highway 113 and Interstate 80). Before investigating, police typically wait for someone to complain. When someone complains, they visit the complaining person’s house first. There, a police officer is supposed to measure the sound using a decibel meter while standing at the edge of the complaining person’s property line, though in practice the police do not often do this. As UC Davis’ Greek community is undoubtedly aware, police are far more likely to respond to noise complaints by knocking on the offender’s front door and telling the partygoers to keep it down rather than taking the time to walk the property line with a decibel meter. (Hint: People might be able to beat their noise citations if they challenge whether the police bothered to use a decibel meter. It’s worth a shot.)

Further, the sound restrictions in the table do not usually restrict sounds generated in the common area of any “multiple-family dwelling,” like an apartment complex. But the restrictions do kick in if the loud noise occurs between 12:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Friday and Saturday or between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m. on other days. The table’s restrictions also kick in when people living in other houses or different apartment complexes can hear the sounds from inside their homes. If a party is loud enough that people across the street — sitting inside their homes — can hear the music, it’s too loud.

If this whole thing seems a little complicated, that’s because it is. Most laws are written with restrictions, qualifications and more if-then statements than a computer program. City ordinances are no exception.

My favorite part of the noise ordinance deals with the monstrous evil that is leaf blowers. Leaf blowers are one of the most annoying devices created by human hands, and the noise ordinance singles them out for special scrutiny. In areas other than a single-family home, a powered leaf blower cannot produce a noise level exceeding 70 decibels measured at a distance of 50 feet from the leaf blower. Each leaf blower has to stay at least 100 feet away from each other leaf blower — they can’t team up. If the noise ordinance were strictly enforced, no longer would we be subject to roving gangs of gas-powered leaf blowers clustered together, vanquishing leaves in unison like some kind of unholy team of Ghostbusters.

Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at governorwatts@gmail.com or tweeted to @governorwatts.


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