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NYS Comptroller

THOMAS P. DiNAPOLI

Taxpayers' Guide to State and Local Audits

New York City Department of Environmental Protection
New York City Department of Buildings
Responsiveness to Noise Complaints Related to Construction Projects


Issued: August 31, 2017
Link to full audit report 2016-N-3

Purpose
To determine whether the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) have effectively enforced the New York City Noise Code (Noise Code) and adequately addressed noise complaints related to construction in New York City. Our audit period was January 1, 2014 through June 30, 2016.

Background
For the period January 1, 2014 through June 30, 2016, a total of 90,861 construction noise complaints were called in to New York City’s 311 system. According to the World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Community Noise, the general population is increasingly exposed to community noise, creating the potential for a significant public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also outlined the adverse health effects from noise, including: hearing loss; increased stress, anxiety, and fatigue; elevated blood pressure; cardiovascular disease; loss of sleep; increased heart rate; and increased sensitivity to sound.

For purposes of this audit, which pertains to construction noise in New York City, DEP and DOB are the agencies primarily responsible for handling such complaints. The Noise Code states that DEP is responsible to abate a sound source which causes or may cause, by itself or in combination with any other sound source or sources, an unreasonable or prohibited noise. DEP also regulates air quality, hazardous waste, and critical quality of life issues. DOB is responsible for: reviewing and approving building plans; issuing building permits (including those for after-hours work); and conducting building inspections.

Key Findings

  • The number of construction noise complaints called into New York City’s 311 system has risen significantly in recent years, from 14,259 in 2010 to 37,806 in 2015. This increase in construction noise complaints was mostly due to the number of after-hours construction variances issued by DOB.
  • Between January 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016, 2,044 of the 2,683 construction noise complaints for our sampled locations were for construction before or after hours. During this same time frame, DOB issued 2,632 After Hours Variances (AHVs) for these locations.
  • Improvements in communication and coordination between DEP and DOB, as well as an overhaul of the process used by DOB for issuing and renewing AHVs, are necessary to more effectively address persistent noise problems.
  • Neither DEP nor DOB accesses New York City’s 311 system as a resource to identify locations with multiple construction noise complaints or to identify and analyze the major sources of noise complaints.
  • DEP inspection reports indicated that inspectors generally find there is no excessive noise at the location and rarely issue violations for noise. Inspection reports do not include noise meter readings, and at the time of the audit, inspectors were not equipped with noise meters.
  • DOB is allowing contractors to obtain continuing extensions of existing AHVs or multiple AHVs for the same construction sites without critical review, which is a significant factor in the rise of construction noise complaints. Additionally, we found planned construction work that was inconsistent with the reason for the AHV approval.

Key Recommendations

To DEP:

  • Improve communication and coordination with DOB, such that pertinent AHV and permit data is made readily available to DEP inspectors.
  • Shorten response times to visit construction sites for which noise complaints were received, to improve inspectors’ ability to witness and assess conditions closer to the time a complaint is made.
  • Establish DEP-specific procedures for conducting inspections.
  • Include noise meter readings in inspection reports to provide an objective assessment of noise levels, where applicable.

To DOB:

  • Formally assess and update processes for issuing and renewing AHVs, taking into account all pertinent information, including the number and nature of noise complaints and their impact on the community.
  • Increase the level of review of AHV renewal requests to ensure they are appropriately vetted prior to approval.
  • Improve communication, including streamlined sharing of information, with DEP regarding locations with an excessive number of noise complaints. 

Other Related Audit/Report of Interest
New York City Police Department/New York State Liquor Authority: Responsiveness to Noise Complaints Related to New York City Nightlife Establishments (2016-S-37)


State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Kenrick Sifontes
Phone: (212) 417-5200; Email: StateGovernmentAccountability@osc.state.ny.us
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236