The Quiet Game

Once, when one of Gary Reese’s neighbors was playing his stereo a bit too loud, the longtime Las Vegas city councilman and current mayor pro tem dealt with it in a novel way.

“I had some tomato plants in my backyard,” Reese recalls. “I picked out four or five tomatoes, took them to my neighbor and said: ‘Here’s some tomatoes for salsa. By the way, your music is really loud. Can you turn it down?’

“I never had another problem,” Reese says.

If only every neighborhood noise problem could be solved as easily. But when gifts of produce aren’t enough, Southern Nevadans don’t have to resort to earplugs and free-form curses.

Instead, they can acquaint themselves with local noise ordinances that often have sharper teeth than many residents — and surely many neighborhood noisemakers — think.

Noisy neighbors aren’t just the bane of the crabby guy on the corner. In a 24/7 town in which one office worker’s 2 in the afternoon is a graveyard casino dealer’s 2 in the morning, they’re a practical annoyance to just about everybody.

Reese says noise ranks among the top three neighborhood complaints — after crime and neighborhood speedsters — he receives from constituents.

“We get probably four or five on average calls per week,” he says, mostly from residents who have called the police about noisy neighbors but who were dissatisfied with the outcome.

“People can laugh about it if they’re not affected by it,” Reese adds. “But for people who are affected by it, it’s very serious.”

While summer — with its longer daylight hours, kids on summer vacation and three-month-long slate of pool parties, backyard cookouts and other outdoor social events — may be one prime time for neighborhood noise problems, noise complaints are a year-round reality here.

“We live in a climate where you can have a barbecue on Thanksgiving,” notes North Las Vegas Police spokesman Sean Walker. “So I’m not really able to say that, yes, we see a lot more (noise complaints) in the summer.”

Devin Smith, Las Vegas Neighborhood Response manager, suspects that neighborhood noise might be particularly bothersome during the winter months, when “people expect quiet earlier because it gets dark earlier.”

Whatever the season, resolving neighborhood noise disputes can be tricky, first, because many Southern Nevadans hardly know their neighbors.

According to Leah Stromberg, supervisor of the Clark County Neighborhood Justice Center, 26 cases involving direct neighbor-to-neighbor noise disputes — as well as about 635 other cases that involve noisy animals or some other noise-related element — went to mediation at the center between May 2006 and April 2007.

In many of those cases, the neighbors “never met one another,” she continues. “They’ve never exchanged phone numbers. They’ve never even knocked on each other’s doors. They sometimes send angry letters and don’t sign them, or write letters, put a 41-cent stamp on them and mail it next door.

“That’s kind of indicative of the culture that we live in. We tend to avoid our neighbors. We’re suspicious, we’re not trusting, and we’re frightened, sometimes, of what we may encounter.”

“Lifestyle difference” also can lay at the root of such disputes, Stromberg adds, and some “have cultural or ethnic elements. Most have some kind of communication road block.”

Nor does it help that one man’s music can be another man’s noise. Noise, Stromberg notes, “is a function, a lot of times, of the person who hears it.”

Each municipality in Southern Nevada, as well as Clark County, has a noise ordinance on the books that attempts to make sense of the nebulous concept of noise. The laws define “noise” — usually in terms of prohibited loud, annoying or unwelcome sounds — delineate possible sources of noise, outline how loud and how long a sound has to be before becoming an illegal noise, and list penalties for breaking the law.

In some cases, the ordinances are specific. For example, Las Vegas’ ordinance says a sound — music from a stereo in a house, for instance — that can be “plainly audible to the human ear at a distance of 50 feet” can be, on the face of it, a violation.

Other factors can define whether a noise is illegal, too. In Henderson, “it comes down to what is reasonable and the time of day,” says Ron Sailon, assistant city attorney.

“If you had a house on some five-acre piece of land and had no neighbors, that would be one thing,” he says. “If you were five feet away from your neighbor’s wall and you’re playing loud music, the proximity would be a significant factor for determining whether the ordinance was violated.”

The ordinances also contain provisions that might surprise some residents.

For instance, residents often “assume they can do whatever they like if it’s not night,” says officer Martin Wright, a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesman.

That’s not true. While ordinances do tend to place emphasis on noise violations that take place during the nighttime hours, Wright says someone can be cited for a noise violation at any time of day.

Similarly, many assume that the driver of a moving car can’t be cited.

Also not true. In Clark County, a police officer may pull a car over and cite the driver if the sound from it can be heard from 75 feet away, Wright says. In Las Vegas, the same thing can happen for a noise that can be heard 50 feet from the car.

When noise does get out of hand, a quiet-seeking neighbor’s first call probably will be to the police.

Henderson police spokesman Keith Paul says an officer’s visit to the offending neighbor’s home usually will be enough to get the volume turned down.

“A majority of times, when people are told they’re disturbing others, they stop,” Paul says. “If they do not stop and the officer has to return, yes, they can be cited.”

Walker says North Las Vegas police officers typically warn the resident once and then log the visit. Then, if an officer has to return, a citation may be issued.

Neighbors may call the police and remain anonymous. On the downside, that will limit what the officer can do.

According to Walker, an officer must witness a misdemeanor violation — such as a noise violation — firsthand in order to issue a citation. So, if the officer doesn’t hear the stereo blasting, the resident can’t be cited. Then, the complaining neighbor would have to sign a complaint for a citation to be issued.

“It’s a different issue if (officers) pull onto the street and hear the music,” Walker adds, although, even then, the caller probably will be asked to sign a witness statement.

Reese says there is a proposal in the works to change Las Vegas’ law so that an officer could cite a noisy resident without a complaint from a neighbor. All the officer would have to do, Reese says, is hear the prohibited noise himself.

A resident who is cited on a noise violation will be called to appear in municipal or county court.

In Las Vegas, Smith says, conviction on a first offense carries a minimum fine of $50, conviction on a second offense a minimum of $100, and conviction on third and subsequent offenses fines of $250 each.

A resident who racks up multiple violations also may be cited under public nuisance laws.

In Las Vegas, according to Smith, three substantiated noise violations at a residence within a 30-day period can lead to a citation as a public nuisance.

Renters have a particularly pressing reason to avoid that: The citation will go not only to the noisy renter, but to the owner of the property, too, Smith says.

Of course, all of this legal stuff can be avoided if residents simply try to be courteous to neighbors and talk to each other once in a while.

For instance, Paul says, a neighbor who’s planning a party might “knock on their neighbor’s door and say: ‘Here’s my phone number. If it becomes too loud or it’s going too late, give me a call.’ “

“Personal etiquette,” he says, “can go a long way.”

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