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Music too loud, won't cut the grass? Experts weigh in on neighbour disputes

Across the country, municipalities are frequently forced to intervene when residents file complaints about noise disrupting their peace and quiet, including the sound of their kids splashing in a backyard pool.
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August 17, 2015 - 6:00 AM

TORONTO - Many would consider the sound of kids gleefully playing outdoors a natural soundtrack of the summer.

But one family in Pickering, Ont., located east of Toronto, was told the sound of their kids splashing in their backyard pool was deemed unreasonably disruptive by a neighbour.

On the very first day of summer vacation, Danielle Honsberger said she received a card from the municipality concerning a neighbour's noise complaint. It was later followed by a formal written notice.

"We didn't even know that we had offended anybody, and if they had spoken directly to us, we could have avoided this whole situation," said Honsberger, a mother of three children, aged seven, nine and 11.

"I would have been embarrassed and very respectful and been on the noise right away —but they never gave us that opportunity.

"I am a parent who is very present and very mindful of how we are heard in the community."

Across the country, municipalities are frequently forced to intervene when residents file complaints about noise disrupting their peace and quiet.

In Ottawa, officials say a total of 6,152 noise-related complaints were filed to the city between the beginning of the year and Aug. 11, with just under half related to loud music and about 1,500 loud shouting.

In 2013, Saskatoon received 1,694 noise complaints and 1,268 complaints specifically about noisy parties.

While statistics were not available, Winnipeg officials said most noise complaints in that city are typically about the roar of construction machinery and neighbours' air conditioners.

Susan Logan, executive director of the non-profit Mediation & Restorative Justice Centre in Edmonton, said neighbour disputes represent the largest percentage of their caseload.

Issues arise all year long, from complaints over placing snow on a neighbour's lawn — or simply not shovelling — to overgrown trees, she said.

Complainants are encouraged to approach their neighbour about their annoyances rather than leaving the task to an outsider.

"If you got a letter in the mail that said: 'One of your neighbours has an issue and would you like to call us so that we can talk about it,' you're going to be defensive right (from) the beginning," Logan said.

"We're trying as much as possible to set a stage from the very beginning that's a stage of collaboration."

Eva Malisius, program head of conflict analysis and management programs at Royal Roads University in Victoria, said the first step towards resolving a dispute over noise should involve telling a neighbour directly how they've been affected by the disruption.

"Just having that opportunity to hear the other side, usually, neighbours are very open to that. If you do file a complaint, that already escalates it," Malisius said.

Failing that, many communities offer mediation services with a neutral third party offering help, she noted. If all of those steps don't lead to success, then a formal complaint can be an option.

Mediators generally don't try to convince either neighbour that they're right or wrong, Logan said. Instead, they focus on having each side reflect on the situation and determine whether they'd like to address the issue further.

"We try to move people from a position on something — so 'You have to cut the tree' — to a position of 'Why would cutting the tree be of value?' And: 'Is there an alternative to cutting the tree?" Logan said.

"Just going over to your neighbour and saying: 'This is what I want you to do,' or 'This is what I need you to do' isn't going to help the situation."

Kim Thompson, manager of Pickering's bylaw enforcement services, confirmed that an official complaint has been filed about the Honsberger family but wouldn't go into details about the case. She said no charges have been laid.

"In general, if there's a noise complaint during daytime hours, the complainant has to indicate that they can hear the noise when they're inside their house with all the doors and windows shut," Thompson said.

Honsberger said she hasn't heard anything further from the city or the complaining neighbour, and maintains that the family have and will continue to use their backyard in a "respectful manner."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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