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Exhausted Hamilton residents dealing with ‘nightmare’ noise next door say pleas to city, police go unheard

Last year, Hamilton police stopped responding to most noise complaints and the city's bylaw officers cut back their hours, leaving residents with no one to call for long stretches overnight. Unable to tune out the loud music, hammering and yelling, these residents are speaking out to demand change — and some quiet.

People across Canada have gone to great lengths to fight noise from neighbours

man stands in front of house

The sounds of drilling, sawing, banging, yelling and smashing at 4 a.m. reverberate through the wall separating Samantha McArthur's bedroom from her next-door neighbours' home.

This early May 17 morning is like many others in the past year and a half — the noise and vibrations emanating from the middle Hess Street North row house for hours makes it impossible for McArthur, and her neighbour Patrick Flynn, to sleep.

"You can call this the nightmare on Hess Street," McArthur said.

McArthur and Flynn each own the respective end units of the three row houses in downtown Hamilton.

On security cameras and phones, they've recorded the neighbours who live between them, engaging in violent arguments that spill onto the street, piling up large objects like bikes, electric scooters and commercial-grade construction equipment in their back and front yards, and doing what sounds like extensive renovation work — all overnight.

We want change. We have a right to live peacefully.

– Patrick Flynn

But there is no authority willing to help, McArthur and Flynn said, even though their neighbours appear to be violating the city's noise bylaw and they say they've contacted municipal enforcement officers upwards of 100 times to file complaints.

The city said it has laid six charges against the residents of the middle row house between last September and February, with three related to noise.

None have been laid since, despite the situation getting worse, said McArthur.

They and other neighbours have also implored police to investigate whether the disruptions meet the bar for criminal mischief, but to their knowledge, that's yet to happen.

"We want change," Flynn said. "We have a right to live peacefully."

Their neighbours did not respond to requests for comment.

As a rule, Hamilton police do not respond to noise complaints unless there's a threat to public safety — a policy change that began last year in an effort to free up resources, said spokesperson Jackie Penman.

Bylaw officers, who also have the power to charge and fine, do not respond to noise complaints past 4:30 p.m. with the exception of Friday and Saturday nights until 1 a.m.

The hours are restricted because of "safety reasons," city staff said in a report to council last year.

That means for long stretches of time, particularly on weeknights, there's no law enforcement agency for residents to call to deal with noise issues in real time.

"The apathy is atrocious," Flynn said.

Their situation raises questions about how much noise is too much and options for residents experiencing neighbour disputes and disruptions. Beyond calling police or bylaw officers, residents in some municipalities have access to community-led mediation — but not those in Hamilton.

While on the surface noise complaints may appear trivial to law enforcement agencies, the resulting tensions between neighbours can have "real life ramifications," said paralegal Leon Presner, a former Durham police officer who retired in 2018.

He said he now represents clients in small claims court who are seeking damages from neighbours after small disputes have "blown up" into major conflicts.

Cities like Hamilton need to have some sort of third party willing to intervene soon after incidents are reported and to get to the root causes of the problem, Presner said.

Health impact of noise

Being exposed to noise, or "an acoustic sea" as one researcher describes it, can have negative impacts on a person's health.

Noise can trigger a biological fight-or-flight response, including increased heart rate and sweating and the release of stress hormones, research suggests. And people who live in noisy neighbourhoods experience higher rates of heart disease.

Across Canada, people struggle to cope with unwanted noise and have gone to great lengths to cut the volume in recent years.

A B.C. man was awarded $1,500 in small claims court after his complaints about his neighbours' humming air conditioner went unheard.

In an extreme instance of violence, a man living near Guelph, Ont., attacked his neighbour with a sledgehammer over a music dispute, police reported in 2017.

In the Nova Scotia university town of Wolfville, councillors are considering creating a community safety office entirely separate from police to address loud student parties — a cause of tension in the community for years.

In the particular case of the Hess Street row houses, the City of Hamilton is monitoring the property and "prioritizing" health and safety of all residents, said Dan Smith, acting director for licensing and bylaw services.

But for McArthur, Flynn and other residents in the area, they feel like they're being ignored.

"We all feel like giving up," McArthur said. "It's hard when you don't feel like you're being heard at all."

'No one was willing to listen'

Another Hamilton family — John Meissner, his wife and two young children — did give up.

After dealing with music blasting for hours at a time from a concert speaker in their next-door neighbours' backyard for two years, Meissner said they sold their beloved Stoney Creek home in east Hamilton and moved out of the city.

"It was just absolute round-the-clock torture living next to these people," Meissner told CBC Hamilton.

A former bylaw officer himself in a different municipality, Meissner had expected police and bylaw officers to work together, educating his neighbours on the rules and, if that didn't work, enforcing the law.

Throughout 2022 and 2023, he recorded and reported noise complaints and other incidents to the city and police, as viewed by CBC Hamilton.

In calls with police, Meissner and his wife described how their kids were scared of the couple who lived next door who'd been heard violently arguing, yelling and swearing on multiple occasions.

It was sometimes impossible for Meissner's wife to work from home, the music permeating her virtual meetings even with the windows closed, they said on one recorded call last July.

And they'd felt compelled to sleep at a friend's house rather than their own when the noise was especially "unbearable," Meissner told the officer.

"It sounds like you've had a really terrible experience," the officer said.He promised to refer the case to the city for bylaw to investigate.

A bylaw officer wrote in an email last August to Meissner there was a "reasonable prospect of conviction" and she'd be issuing a $100 fine against his neighbours.

However, the city never laid this or any other charge.

The reason given was "the complainant [Meissner] did not wish to participate," Smith, the city's head of bylaw, told CBC Hamilton.

But that's not what Meissner told the city.

In emails sent to bylaw, and seen by CBC Hamilton, Meissner said multiple times he would take part in the process, including testifying as a witness in provincial offences court.

Eighty-four days later, the bylaw officer finally followed up to say charges hadn't been issued and he wouldn't be required to testify. She didn't say why.

Police also declined to lay charges.

They'd consulted with an assistant Crown attorney who determined if the neighbours were charged with criminal mischief, the outcome would likely be a peace bond or other diversion measure, and therefore didn't pursue it, according to a police report.

The report was written in response to a complaint Meissner filed with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. The civilian oversight body referred his complaint back to Hamilton police, who dismissed his allegations last month. Meissner has appealed the decision to the police services board.

Meissner said he would have welcomed a peace bond — a court order for his neighbours to keep the peace and be of good behaviour.

"But no one was willing to listen," he said.

Police said they couldn't comment on specific properties due to privacy legislation.

What other Ontario police services do

Hamilton police's policy is they do not respond to noise complaints unless there are extenuating circumstances or a public safety component, if a bylaw officer calls for assistance or it's part of a larger operational plan like cracking down on parties around McMaster University.

"In my respectful opinion, I think that's quite problematic," said Presner, the former police officer-turned-paralegal.

"If there's a dispute, police have a duty to come in and keep the peace — that's at the minimum."

Penman, the police spokesperson, told CBC Hamilton that not responding to noise complaints has "freed up officers to be where the public needs them the most."

Before the new policy, in 2022, Hamilton police received nearly 3,700 noise complaints. After the new policy, in 2023, they received just over 100 noise complaints and saved about 15,000 hours not investigating those cases, Penman said.

"If police receive a call regarding domestic violence, substance use or stolen goods, our priority is always to ensure the safety of members of our community and investigate reports of criminal activity," Penman said.

CBC Hamilton reached out to five neighbouring jurisdictions in other parts of southern Ontario to find out how common it is for there to routinely be no enforcement agency available to assist residents with noise complaints.

No other municipalities contacted for this story follow Hamilton's approach.

Halton police said they respond to all noise complaints.

In Niagara, police said they respond to noise complaints when bylaw isn't available, including overnight.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service said it responds on a "case-by-case basis," and does proactive enforcement and education alongside municipal and regional bylaw officers.

Guelph police said they, like Hamilton police, generally pass noise complaints to bylaw unless there's mention of criminal behaviour. But unlike in Hamilton, Guelph's bylaw are available to respond to complaints 24/7, said the city.

Toronto police respond to reports of noisy parties and people "acting disorderly" by yelling, screaming and fighting, said city spokesperson Shane Gerard. Bylaw officers respond to noise complaints until midnight or 2 a.m. depending on the day of the week and prioritize those that are recurring.

Toronto mediation pilot becomes permanent

In Toronto, residents can address noise complaints without involving the criminal justice system.

The Neighbourhood Group (TNG), a social services agency, offers community mediation to help neighbours solve disputes involving noise, fences, cameras and signs, said Catherine Feldman Axford, who co-ordinates the service.

Volunteers run the sessions, helping residents focus on the root causes of tension and to problem solve.

"It's really easy to demonize the other person when you're upset," Axford said. "With mediation, you start to remember there's a person there and whatever you're doing is affecting them as much as it's affecting you."

The sessions are more laid back and inclusive than going through the court process — anyone with a stake is invited to participate, and they can bring along pets and family or friends for support.

A volunteer leads them through a discussion with questions to establish how each side feels, what their values are and what it is about the noise that's making them so uncomfortable, Axford said. Then they work to find a solution that both sides can agree to.

Mediation is not a panacea, said Peter Bruer, TNG's senior manager in conflict resolution training. It shouldn't be used in emergencies, crises or dangerous situations.

But it is powerful in its own way, he said.

"Sometimes mediation shows people the reality of what they're actually causing and what they have to account for, and they're confronted with the fact, 'My neighbour is going to see this thing through,'" said Bruer.

In the last year, TNG handled 308 cases with a budget of $150,000 from the city and United Way, Axford said, noting the service is free for participants.

What we want is communities that can look after themselves, people who can manage their own social relationships so they don't need the state doing it for them.

– Peter Bruer, The Neighbourhood Group

Toronto's bylaw department began referring residents to mediation as part of a pilot in 2018 for cases that may not require charges, said Gerard, the city spokesperson. It was made a permanent tool the following year.

TNG also receives referrals from the criminal justice system, said Bruer.

"We don't want a social contract that criminalizes certain behaviour as a primary way of regulating our relationships with each other because that's dangerous and anti-democratic, and gives a lot of power to the criminal justice system," Bruer said.

"What we want is communities that can look after themselves, people who can manage their own social relationships so they don't need the state doing it for them."

It's also practical — freeing up police officers and city resources, and diverting cases from the court system, Bruer said.

While mediation is formally offered in about a dozen communities in Ontario, Hamilton is not one of them.

It discontinued the service 10 years ago after reporting not many people had participated.

Bylaw staff still "encourage" mediation on a case-by-case basis, but Smith said they could not provide the number of times this has happened due to the city's recent cybersecurity incident.

As the noisy nights on Hess Street drag on, McArthur said she'll continue begging for some kind of help.

"I truly wish somebody would do something," she wrote in an email to the city and police at 3 a.m. last Wednesday, as banging and yelling from next door kept her awake.

"This is going on night, after night, after night. I don't know how I'm expected to live any kind of normal life."


Samantha Beattie is a reporter for CBC Hamilton. She has also worked for CBC Toronto and as a Senior Reporter at HuffPost Canada. Before that, she dived into local politics as a Toronto Star reporter covering city hall.

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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