Noise top cause of spats in housing estates

A monitor to track noise levels installed at a void deck in Ang Mo Kio by the Municipal Services Office and Singapore Kindness Movement as part of a pilot project to deter noise pollution in community spaces. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Over 100 cases handled annually by MinLaw’s Community Mediation Centre over past 3 years

In June, a man who worked in information technology quit his job. It was not because he was unhappy with his work.

Rather, the Bukit Panjang resident wanted to spend time gathering evidence on what he says is noise disturbance caused by his neighbour from a unit below his flat.

As it can happen at all hours, time and resources have to be dedicated towards this process, said the 29-year-old who wanted to be known only as Mr See.

He had successfully obtained an order from the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals (CDRT) for his neighbour to cease causing excessive noise in the form of stomping, hammering or loud drilling in July last year, after putting up with it for eight months.

But Mr See said the order was breached shortly, and he applied to the court in August last year for a special direction to ensure compliance.

He has waited more than a year for the outcome of his latest application.

But Mr See does not want to give up and move out. “I’ve lived here all my life. Why should I be the one who has to move out when I’m the affected party?”

He is unable to elaborate on what kind of evidence he is collecting, as his case is still before the courts. But he hopes to return to work after the case has been settled.

Engaging a noise-monitoring firm to collect evidence over a one-year period is likely to cost more than the income loss from his job, added Mr See. A week’s work alone can cost $2,000, he said.

Though extreme, Mr See’s predicament is not uncommon.

More than 100 cases involving neighbour disputes over noise were handled by the Ministry of Law’s Community Mediation Centre (CMC) annually over the past three years (2016 to 2018).

Feuding residents will typically be referred to it for voluntary mediation. If it fails, they can go to the CDRT. There, a resident can apply for a court order to stop his neighbour from the act that causes the noise and seek to claim for damages up to $20,000.

Noise tops the list of causes of neighbour disputes mediated at the CMC in the past three years. Last year, 80 per cent of the cases were settled.

The CDRT heard 108 cases last year, nearly double the 57 in 2017. A breakdown of how many of these involved noise complaints is not available, but nearly 70 per cent of the 79 claims filed with the CDRT from October 2015 to July 2016 included complaints about excessive noise.

If the CDRT issues an order and the neighbour refuses to comply, the complainant can further apply for a special direction for the neighbour to do so.

If that fails, a magistrate’s complaint can be filed to privately prosecute the neighbour for breach of the special direction.

There is no one agency that oversees all complaints about noise pollution. But acoustics consultants say it is noise caused by neighbours in residential units that tends to affect Singaporeans the most. The Housing Board received an average of 8,300 complaints about noise every year, for the past three years.

This is down to the fact that such disturbances can happen around the clock, especially at night, and in an unpredictable manner.

“Transport and construction noise, on the other hand, is controlled by the authorities so that it does not occur during the evening”, said Mr Jackie Toh, director of Noise and Vibration Control Engineering.

And although contractors may be fined by the National Environment Agency (NEA) if they flout rules, there is little recourse for those living in residential units. The HDB, for instance, cannot mete out penalties against noise caused by residents.

Lawyers Wilbur Lua of Covenant Chambers and Chia Boon Teck of Chia Wong Chambers said they have not heard of residents successfully claiming for damages related to noise complaints under CDRT.

Alternatively, one can file a civil suit against a neighbour for noise disturbance. But Mr Chia warned of its limited effectiveness.

This is because Singapore’s civil laws compensate quantifiable damages such as actual medical expenses incurred, but not unquantifiable experiences such as loss of sleep and headaches, he said.

“In extreme cases of inconsiderate neighbours, the police and HDB can take action but the amount of resources and time spent are not commensurate with the slap on the wrist that the inconsiderate neighbour would typically receive, such as warnings.”

Despite the limited scope for recourse, more frustrated residents have been trying to take action.

Mr Michael Wee, director of consultancy Alpha Acoustics, has been getting four to six inquiries for his firm’s noise-monitoring services a month, up from one to two three years ago. Noise-monitoring firm Dropnoise has also been seeing inquiries go up by 15 per cent every year since 2016.

The firms produce noise reports that can be used to prove one’s case in court. Some residents also show the reports to their neighbours.

The NEA has no guidelines on community noise. But Mr Wee said residents can take reference from NEA’s guidelines on traffic noise.

They state that noise levels at the facade of a residential development should not exceed 67 dB averaged over an hour, while indoor noise levels should not exceed 57 dB averaged over an hour under natural ventilation. These are comparable to that of a supermarket and conversational speech respectively.

Ms Claire Soh, 40, a Choa Chu Kang resident who has been putting up with constant hammering noises from her neighbour for the past two years, hopes that the laws can be tweaked to give the HDB more powers to deal with cases of excessive noise. Mediation did not resolve her case, while the cost of pursuing a civil suit is too prohibitive for her.

Ms Soh, who is taking a part-time course in digital marketing, pointed out that in Britain, town councils can immediately issue a warning notice to a party found to be making excessive noise. If he does not comply, the councils can immediately impose a fine or prosecute him.

They also have the power to seize noise-making equipment. Some councils use residents’ noise logs as proof, while others have trialled the use of noise-monitoring apps.

In Singapore, a pilot project to install noise meters in community spaces is under way. However, they do not record audio or video.

Associate Professor Lee Heow Pueh from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said recorded audio can be used to identify the source of noise, and possibly be used as evidence in court.

And if laws are strengthened, Ms Soh hopes there can be low-cost ways for residents to submit convincing evidence of complaints to the authorities so that they can take follow-up action.

“Source:[Noise top cause of spats in housing estates] © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction”

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