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The Sound and the Infuriated

Outdoor Noises Drive Some Neighbors Crazy

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page F01

Alexandria resident Susan Davis lives under a flight path for Reagan National Airport, but it's not the noise from the sky that bothers her.

Last fall, she was frequently unable to chat on the phone because of the roar when a lawn company used leaf blowers next door. "I couldn't even hear myself talk," she said.

When the Target Is Tranquility

For more information

• Noise Free America: www.noisefree.org

• Noise Pollution Clearinghouse: 888-200-8332; www.nonoise.org

• Noise Center of the League for the Hard of Hearing: 888-664-7388; www.lhh.org/noise

• Nolo Law For All: www.nolo.com; see section on neighbor law, then click "Noise FAQ"

• Outdoor Power Equipment Institute: 703-549-7600; www.opei.org See Web site section called "Blower Log" for information about newer, quieter leaf blowers.

• Right to Quiet Society: 604-222-0207; www.quiet.org

• Rutgers Noise Technical Assistance Center: 732-932-8065; www.envsci.rutgers.edu/org/rntac

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Several times, she was awoken by nearby car alarms. "They don't serve any purpose other than disturbing the peace because they are ignored by everyone," she said.

Amid all that clamor, she said, "I wanted my sanity back."

It's the time of year when routine neighborhood noise can make you crazy. Fall is on the way and homeowners will be turning down the air conditioning, opening windows and spending time on their porches and decks or in their gardens. But sometimes, the din from a neighbor's property -- be it a barking dog, car alarm, outdoor stereo, renovation crew, power lawn tool or revved up motorcycle -- can ruin time spent outdoors.

"People forget that noise is not contained by picket fences," said P. M. Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct" (St. Martin's Press, 2002).

In a region where many residents hear an almost constant hum from the Beltway or rumble from airplanes, it may seem surprising that ground-level neighborhood noise could be so upsetting. But noise experts point to several explanations.

Cora Jordan, author of "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise" (Nolo, 2001), blames rising stress levels in our society for our sensitivity to noise at home. Suburban commuters spend increasing amounts of time on traffic-filled roads, and office workers downtown who hear fire engines and jackhammers during the day "have had enough -- they want it quiet when they come home."

Amy K. Boyle, director of public education at the League for the Hard of Hearing in New York, says some people worry not only about losing peace and quiet, but also about losing their hearing. A 2000 League study of people between the ages of 60 and 89 found that significantly more people failed hearing screenings in 2000 than in 1980 or 1990. Noise of more than 85 decibels can, over time, cause permanent hearing problems; many outdoor power tools, such as drills and leaf blowers, can exceed those levels at close distances, Boyle said.

Some industries are working to improve technology to manufacture quieter products. "We are aware of homeowners' concern about noise levels," said Mary Leonard, communications manager at Deere & Co., a Illinois company that makes John Deere brand residential, commercial and agricultural equipment. Leonard said that while the United States has no national noise regulations, the European Union does, and her company strives to meet those.

Still, she said creating quieter motors is "an engineering challenge."

Lee Edmunds, manager of motorcycle press for American Honda, said Honda encourages riders to respect local noise ordinances. "We produce a lot of toys, so we want to make sure people can enjoy them without annoying others," he said.

Residents seeking respite from noise in their neighborhoods won't get help from federal or state governments -- noise enforcement at those levels was cut decades ago. Local governments, however, can quiet things down.

In some locales, including Boulder, Colo.; Portsmouth, N.H.; and Tampa, noise restrictions have been tightened recently, according to an article last month in USA Today. In some parts of California, officials have banned leaf blowers. Similar actions do not appear to be taking place in the Washington region, but every jurisdiction has noise ordinances that restrict construction and other noisy activity to certain weekday and weekend hours and impose fines on violators.

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