You have a party on Saturday night and the neighbour responds with his chainsaw first thing on Sunday morning. What you can do if neighbourhood noise gets too much.

Excessive or unreasonable

Under the Resource Management Act (RMA), people are not allowed to make “excessive” noise and must ensure that noise from their property does not reach an “unreasonable” level. The factors that might make noise excessive or unreasonable include:

  • Loudness: The law does not accept that Miley Cyrus, or Sibelius for that matter, are excessive at just any level. There has to be some give and take.
  • Time of day: Contractors can dig up your street during the day, but if they start work at first light on a Sunday you should complain.
  • Background noise: If you live next to a school, you’ll have to accept the regular sounds of children playing. But if they start a brass band that practises just over your back fence every lunchtime, you’ll have grounds for complaint.
  • Length of time: You can have a really loud burglar alarm, but it should turn off after several minutes.
  • Frequency: You can use a chainsaw to cut branches off a tree, but you can’t set up a firewood business in a suburban backyard and have saws running all day.

Taking action

The job of deciding what’s excessive or unreasonable falls to noise control officers employed by local councils. They work under guidelines for various zones contained in the district plan. What’s acceptable in the inner city and industrial zones may not be allowed in the suburbs.

If the officers decide a noise is “excessive”, they can take immediate steps to stop it. But “unreasonable” noise is often harder to deal with. If a factory’s new machine is too loud, say, it may take time for modifications or extra sound insulation to be put in place.

If the council won’t resolve a problem, you can take it further yourself. Under the RMA anyone can apply to the Environment Court for an enforcement order to stop an activity which breaches the Act or is likely to adversely affect the environment.

It costs $56.22 to apply for an enforcement order. But if you have to hire expert advisers and lawyers, you could face fees of $5000 or even $10,000 more. If the problem affects a group of people, these costs can be shared.

Further information on enforcement processes and options to help resolve your concerns are outlined in the Ministry for the Environment’s publications Enforcement and Resolving Resource Management Act Concerns which can be downloaded from the Ministry’s website.

Particular problems

Barking dogs

Dogs often bark when left alone, and owners are sometimes not even aware of the problem.

The RMA does not cover barking dogs, but the Dog Control Act 1996 allows the council’s dog control officer to act. The officer can issue a notice to owners requiring them to quieten the dog. If the owners do not comply with the notice, the officer can remove the dog from the property. Failure to comply can also result in a heavy fine. We discuss this further in our Dog law section.

Burglar alarms

If an alarm keeps sounding, contact the owner. If you can’t do this, phone your council. They can enter the property accompanied by the police to disable the alarm.

If you own an alarm, make sure it is set to turn itself off after a fixed time (say, 10 minutes). You should also leave a house key and instructions with one of your neighbours. When you go away, leave a contact number with a neighbour.

Cars, trucks and planes

These are specifically exempted from the excessive noise provisions of the RMA, but the police traffic branch has powers to deal with noisy vehicles operating on public roads.

Councils can control airport noise through their district plans. For example, they may set curfew hours for flights, noise limits for generators and engine-testing restrictions.

Factories

If you’re thinking about buying a house near an industrial area, spend a day there first to see what the noise is like.

If you already live by a factory which has become too noisy, contact the environmental health officer at your council. The noise will be investigated and will may have to be reduced if it exceeds the limits allowed in the district plan. However, the factory may have existing use rights which could limit the extent of the action taken.

If the council doesn’t act you can apply to the Environment Court for an enforcement order yourself.

Inner city noise

With bars, nightclubs and amplified buskers, not to mention traffic, the inner city is a noisy place. Councils can act against excessive noise, but the permitted inner-city noise levels under most district plans are much higher than for residential areas.

Just how far does nightclub noise carry at 2am?
Just how far does nightclub noise carry at 2am?

If you want to buy in the inner city, check out your intended area late at night between Thursday and Saturday. What would happen if a busker who only knows 4 songs camped outside your window? Is there a steady stream of trucks and cars, all changing gear into a nearby intersection? Just how far does nightclub noise carry at 2am?

Find out what steps the developer has taken to soundproof the apartment. You may want to spend some money yourself on special glazing, or extra wall and ceiling insulation.

Power tools and garden equipment

Your neighbour is allowed to mow the lawn and use a drill around the section. But it’s usually unreasonable of them to use noisy machinery late at night. Phone your council: the problem can be dealt with in the same way as a noisy party.

Stereos and parties

Most noise complaints arise from the use of stereos in urban areas. If your neighbour’s party becomes too loud, goes on too late or both, phone the noise control officer at your council.

The council is obliged to investigate and take action if necessary. The officer may direct that the noise be reduced for up to 72 hours.

If the noise starts up again after they’ve gone, phone back. The officer has the power to return with the police and seize the equipment making the noise. For more information see our Neighbourhood disputes advice.

How loud is that?