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Citizen's View: City needs clear and measurable noise standards

Every day, for as long as 10 hours a day, my neighbor’s outdoor swimming pool heater violates Oregon Department of Environmental Quality standards for noise.

In Portland and Tigard and Ashland, the level of noise is a violation. In New York City, it’s a violation. My neighbor would be cited and, if the nuisance continued, fined, with the threat of further monetary damages awarded in civil court.

In Lake Oswego, it’s perfectly acceptable.

Here, the Municipal Code says it’s unlawful to continuously create sound that is “loud, disturbing, and unnecessary.” But there are no measurable limits for noise. It’s all subjective. Inspectors don’t collect decibel readings. They don’t even submit to hearing tests that measure how well they can perceive sound. If a piece of mechanical equipment is properly installed, within the required zoning setback and superficially performing to industry standards, it’s not a problem.

When I hired an acoustical engineer to conduct a sound test in my yard, the pool heater hit 62 decibels. That is 17 decibels higher, or about twice as loud, as what’s allowed in any neighborhood in Portland. If you download a free app that installs a decibel meter on your phone and measure the sound coming from a leaf blower or lawnmower, you can hear what 62 decibels sounds like. It’s noise that pours through sealed doors and windows. It carries across houses and trees and fences and can still be heard a block away from its source.

When I complained to Lake Oswego government, the on-site experts for assessing the problem — who included a member of the company that designed and installed the pool — said the heater was running properly. Imagine listening to a leaf blower for hours and hours each day, every day of the year, and being told, as I was, that you can take your complaint to civil court.

It costs several hundred dollars to buffer the sound coming from a pool heater. It costs between $50,000 and $70,000 to pursue a case like mine in court. It’s a gamble to ask a judge to intervene where a city chooses not to. Even with a win, attorney’s fees are not recoverable.

As density increases, the borders between neighbors narrow and the officials responsible for overseeing change can glide away from the responsibility of managing problems. We’re still living with rules that were shaped in a different era, when it wasn’t possible that a new, uninsulated, 71-decible air conditioner could be installed five feet from your bedroom window. Or, a food cart pod could be proposed without explicit limits on noise from generators.

I appreciate that a problem like mine isn’t a terrible one to have. It points out the wealth of this community, and the comforts we anticipate by living here. In other areas of oversight, Lake Oswego government has done a fine job of balancing priorities for quality of life, development and the preservation of nature.

And yet, when it comes to noise, I’d be better off living near Times Square.

This fall, I want to hear from candidates who value the property rights of citizens seeking peace and quiet over the rights of persistent noisemakers. Then, I’d like to see city government work with the community to establish clear and objective noise standards in both the Municipal and Development Codes.

Lake Oswego resident Audrey Block is a writer and member of the Lake Oswego Neighborhood Action Coalition.

Editor’s note: The Review asked Bill Youngblood, the City’s code enforcement specialist, to respond to this Citizen’s View; here’s what he had to say:

“Lake Oswego’s nuisance regulations establish unlawful noise as sounds that are loud, disturbing and unnecessary. The regulations also list specific noise prohibitions for certain objects or activities, such as animals, mechanical devices, construction, groups of people, etc.

“The City investigated the letter writer’s pool heater noise complaint at length and determined the noise to be necessary and reasonable. The building housing the pool equipment met setbacks from property lines; the equipment met requirements for building, electrical and plumbing codes; the pool heater was tested and found to be operating within the designed parameters of the manufacturer; and excessive noise was not observed.

The City approaches noise complaints between neighbors by describing the regulations that apply, and by starting a dialogue to find common ground and offer solutions. The goal is to help neighbors find a solution that both parties feel is fair; however, that is not always achieved.

The nuisance regulations do not contain specific sound thresholds stated in decibels; however, by not having a rigid threshold, the City has flexibility in responding to a noise complaint by considering context, duration, etc., and most importantly if the sounds are necessary or reasonable.”