Seeking Advice from Noise Pollution Activists
March 6, 2013 7:23 AM   Subscribe

What steps could we take to improve a very serious noise pollution issue near our home?

When we took our rental we were told that while the NASCAR speedway two miles away is loud it only operates a few Saturdays during the summer according to a schedule posted on its website. We planned to use those times be away from home. We quickly discovered that the operators do not adhere to the schedule, with the loud engines and exhaust coming frequently and unpredictably throughout the week. We have to close up the house and put in earplugs underneath vice-like headphones at these times to save our sanity, but even these measures don't block out the sound completely. They are physically uncomfortable for more than three hours and the races last summer went on for more than seven hours including warm-up. Sometimes they don't end until after 1:00 a.m. During all this time we're unable to watch TV, even with headphones, converse, or enjoy our yard and deck. When we've called to inquire why there was racing during unscheduled hours there was either no answer or we were told the track had been rented out.

We elected a new Township Supervisor specifically on his platform of noise reduction. There is a noise ordinance on the books and he promised to enforce it. He does not live within earshot of the speedway and has another home in town. Last week he held a meeting to discuss practical measures. So many speedway advocates came that the meeting had to be rescheduled for a larger venue. In the interim social media erupted with supporters from all over the country crying oppression and insisting that those of us who don't like the noise should move. Many posters claimed to be local residents who enjoy the noise. There were disturbing threats—beyond vexatious spelling and grammar—the most innocuous being to seek out those of us complaining and drive past our homes with their loud mufflers, revving their engines in a kind of reverse vigil.

The township is now backing down. When we expressed our disappointment the supervisor asked us to be on a small committee made up of two residents, two speedway reps, and the sheriff to help monitor the levels. We're reminded of that scene in Gandhi where an imperialist advises placating agitators by conferring low-level positions, though we're not sure that's his intention. The speedway has been here for many years, but what about the fundamental tenet of American democracy that another's rights end where ours begin? Clean air and quiet seem to us self-evidently basic human needs. This is severely interfering with our enjoyment of our home, with our very lives, and our neighbors feel the same way.

Has anyone been here acted for improvement? Please, no responses from racing advocates. My question is specifically for those who fight noise pollution. We've heard more than we can take from the track.
posted by R2WeTwo to Law & Government (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The misinformation you were given about the frequency of the noisy occasions might be grounds for you to break your lease and move.
posted by Ery at 7:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [14 favorites]

I am not a noise pollution advocate, but I have dealt with my Town officials regularly for years. I would guess that the Supervisor is being genuine with good intentions asking you to be on this small committee. However, I do not think it will amount to much. What I have found is that established money making (for the Town) businesses will end up being placated to preserver tax revenue. You may end up with a more accurate schedule for when the track will be in use and you may get some small concessions on the start and end time, but I do not think you will have success in actually abating the noise. I also would not worry too much about the outsiders commenting. Just remind the Supervisor who votes, not who comments.

I think your best bet is to address this as a landlord-tenant issue. I think Ery's suggestion about pursuing the misinformation angle is a good one. I have no idea how easy it would be for your landlord to replace you, but if it is relatively easy, I would think they would want to have a race tolerant tenant in there.

If you are determined to remain in your rental house, I think you are in for a long uphill battle. A battle that is ultimately futile as I think the track is providing a goodly amount of tax revenue to the town. Think about all the special interests in addition to the track fans you will be fighting. The police who probably make a decent amount of overtime because of the track, local restaurants and convenience stores selling food and alcohol, and all the other services that are associated with the track.

As renters, I think you are at a disadvantage too. Legally, you probably have the same rights to noise abatement as an owner, but local officials often view renters as transients and may not be as forceful in pursuing the issue.

Fwiw, I am a race fan, but on TV. I have been to about 8 races in person and because of the noise, even with headphones and earplugs, I will not return.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:10 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you have it in writing from your landlord about the schedule of the track? Otherwise I don't know if you would be able to break your lease.

I live one mile away from a racetrack used for NASCAR and maybe I'm just weird, but the level and pollution that you describe does not match my experience whatsoever and I live twice as close to one as you do.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:10 AM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: We cannot move.
posted by R2WeTwo at 8:13 AM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: DH just informed that we're less than a mile away.
posted by R2WeTwo at 8:23 AM on March 6, 2013

Perhaps the commitee could research noise-reduction techniques (walls, trees, etc).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:41 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why you can't move, as that is likely your best bet, but other than that, I don't know how much you can do. The racing track was there long before you moved in, and while I understand your argument for quiet being a basic human need, the argument can also be made that anyone who moved to the area was aware of the speedway before they moved, similar to if you moved next to an airport.

As for specifically what you can do, it sounds like you're already heavily involved with city government, which is good. It would be worth consulting a lawyer, it is possible that you might be able to sue the city if they aren't enforcing the laws (or maybe not, I have no idea about this). If there really is a lot of support for the track, however, there might be enough race supporters to get the laws changed in order to allow for the noise.

If you haven't done so already, get a decibel meter (which you can get from radio shack or online relatively cheaply) and start recording the actual decibel levels of the sound both inside and outside your house, along with dates and times and durations. Saying that it's "loud" isn't going to be nearly as effective in a legal fight as saying "it was 112 dB for 4 hours on 3/6/13". With this information you can compare it to OSHA guidelines for volume and hearing damage, which will be a much more compelling argument than whether or not you can hear the TV.

It might also be worth investing in some in-ear headphones (not the apple ear bud style, but the kind that are basically earplugs with speakers built in). This will go a long way to helping you listen to music or the TV while the noise is happening.

If you owned the house I would suggest looking into acoustic treatment to reduce noise inside the house, but this is expensive, and not something that can just be thrown in, it would require extensive remodeling.
posted by markblasco at 8:46 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

There have been some noise pollution issues during the expansion of two main airports in the Chicago area (O'Hare and Midway) that resulted in noise abatement remedies for homeowners and schools (even private schools) in the area. Maybe you will find some useful information (or at least allies) there?

O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission

Midway Airport Noise Management System

I also live near a racetrack, so I understand your concern. When the track was first proposed, residents were told that racing would only happen a few times a year. What wasn't explicitly mentioned or emphasized was that it's not just race day that's loud, it's the whole week leading up to the day of the race, when the teams are testing their cars and the track. Luckily, our track isn't used all that often, so noise hasn't been an issue for us.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:46 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

You moved into a place that is less than a mile away from a NASCAR track. You didn't do your homework, and now you're stuck.

This is more or less like moving into an apartment next to a train station and complaining about the noise of passing trains. The train station (or NASCAR track) isn't going anywhere. Get used to it or move.

Other than using your landlord's misrepresentation of noise levels as a grounds to break your lease, I think you're stuck. Have you tried any basic, renter-friendly sound-proofing options?
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:47 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

If it's as loud as you say (ear plugs+headphones), soundproofing your house isn't really a realistic option. This isn't something a little insulation and some double paned glass is going to fix. You would need to completely acoustically decouple your living space from the outer shell of the house. To do this even in one room is pretty costly.
When I was a kid, we live under the flight path of Dover Air Force base, where thy flew C5s (huge transport planes) in and out all day. It was similar but probably not as continuous but it was every day. If I were you, I'd move. You say you can't but practically, you can't stay where you are. If not, find something to do on Saturdays that gets you out of the house.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:48 AM on March 6, 2013

I don't understand why you can't move. Is your landlord in your family? Is your rent super duper below market rate? Or even free?

If you are paying market rate. move. It really is that simple.

Yes, it would be wonderful to have the track invest in trees and other noise abatement structures.

But really. Just move.
posted by jbenben at 10:47 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not a NASCAR fan—don't like auto-related sports whatsoever, in fact—but I do have a background in urban planning and economic development and I agree with JohnnyGunn's assessment of the situation. The benefits of the track certainly don't outweigh the costs for you and your neighbors, but they may very well do just that for the community at large. If that's the case, consider "the fundamental tenet of American democracy, i.e, that another's rights end where ours begin" from the community perspective, e.g., your right to exceptional (better than the legal mandate) air quality and a quite environment ends where the community's right to the tax revenue (which funds the schools, infrastructure, etc) begins.

Could the Township Supervisor's reasons for failing to follow through on campaign promises be tied to a recent cost-benefit analysis and/or his reassessment of the political realities? Can't hurt to ask.

That said, clean air and (a reasonably) quiet environment would make everybody's top 10 list re basic human needs, so I'm not suggesting that you and your neighbors just suck it up. In addition to the noise abatement strategies listed above, you could seek legal advice regarding how to address the failure of local government to enforce existing laws. Check out, which has published a manual, Guide to Reducing Community Noise Pollution (PDF). (Note: I'm not endorsing this group or their strategies - I found it when I googled something like "neighborhood organizing noise pollution.)

If I were in your place, however, I wouldn't do jack until I took a cold look at the issues raised by JohnnyGunn. And if I determined that the community is truly dependent upon the revenue generate by that track, I would concede defeat in a hot second. The short-term health of the economy will trump the health of the environment every damn time. (This might not be your choice, of course—and more power to you if you chose to fight the good fight.)
posted by she's not there at 11:42 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think your very best bet is to see a lawyer, and talk about whether a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the nuisance might have any chance of success. If nothing else, the lawyer can explain the principles of nuisance law in your jurisdiction so that you know what your rights actually are. An initial consultation would probably be free.

Get a copy of your local zoning code. Figure out what provisions apply to the racetrack -- there are probably limitations on hours of operation, parking, setbacks, fencing, and allowable noise levels. Chances are very good that the facility is in violation of something, maybe many things. Getting the zoning code enforced can be difficult, but it often works.

In the meantime, how about inviting the Township Supervisor (or anyone else who isn't convinced of the seriousness of your complaint) to have dinner at your home at a time when you know there will be a race going on?
posted by Corvid at 11:43 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think your very best bet is to see a lawyer, and talk about whether a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the nuisance might have any chance of success. If nothing else, the lawyer can explain the principles of nuisance law in your jurisdiction so that you know what your rights actually are. An initial consultation would probably be free.

This. Nuisance law is complicated and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A lawyer who specializes in this stuff is the only way to really know what your options are. Especially in townships, you can't just go by the zoning law. The people who come up with that stuff often don't know what the hell they're doing and put together laws that are unenforceable.

Lots of race tracks have noise rules. Every one of them that I've ever used only allows open exhausts for very special occasions (ie the major NASCAR events or whatever). Over XXdB and you can't run. Most of them only put these rules in place when enough neighbors complain.

Of course, I'd be there to shout you down if I cared about this facility, because you definitely came to the nuisance rather than the other way around. This is like cases where people move to rural areas in the winter, only to get pissed off in June when they realize pig shit smells bad. NASCAR is very loud, and the purpose of the schedule on the website was to advertise major events, not list every single use of the track (most of which is always some kind of private rental). Good luck!
posted by pjaust at 12:34 PM on March 7, 2013

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