Monday, October 13, 2008

Chasing the rabbit down the hole

Ouch! That verbal slash-and-burn taught me not to engage my neighbor again. But, where does one go with an unresolved noise complaint? Why, City Hall, of course!

On March 4th I visited the city's Planning Department with the intent of obtaining a zoning variance and a permit to build a freeway-style sound wall between me and my neighbors, high enough to block the roof-mounted condenser noise and long enough to provide a "noise shadow" for my house. The Associate Planner with whom I spoke redirected me away from that costly (and probably unfeasible) plan and toward filing a noise complaint. Just bring him a letter and he would enter the complaint onto the city's government outreach website. I returned the next day with my first letter to the city. Sure enough, on March 11th he opened the complaint. It all appeared so easy - an appropriate person from the city would investigate the problem, resolve it, and close the case number on the system.

Here is my letter:

March 5, 2008

City of Manteca, Community Development Department
Attn: Lantz Rey
1001 W Center St
Manteca, CA 95337

Re: Complaint of noise from 810 Fishback Street and TLC Catering, property and business owned by Lynda S Allen and Theresa A Brassey.

Dear Mr. Rey,

I appreciate you and others in your department taking a few minutes yesterday to help me examine my options concerning my neighbors. It is not my intent to put them out of business, but it is my intent to get some peaceful relief from the noise caused by it.

I purchased and took possession of my property at 786 Fishback Street on March 5, 2007. Several daytime visits to the property the month previous with a realtor did not reveal the extent of the noise problem from the adjoining property, and it was omitted from the seller's disclosures during the purchase. The first few nights in my house were eye-opening, but the summer of 2007 was completely miserable. Here are some things I learned during my one year of living next door:

1. A retail business (one or more catering trucks) is housed at 810 Fishback Street, operating under a home occupation permit "grandfathered" by City of Manteca when this area was annexed from the County of San Joaquin in 2005 (Area 148, 2005-03, Airport Way/Yosemite Avenue Island.)
2. An outbuilding close to the common property line fence has a refrigeration unit on its roof, above the fence and overlooking my house and yard. It cools a walk-in refrigerator to support the retail business. The unit cycles on and off as necessary to maintain storage temperatures – obviously moreso during the summer than the winter. Hot summer days – and nights – cause it to run almost continuously.
3. The walkway between the outbuilding and the fence houses a commercial style icemaker (compressor, storage bin, etc.) The walkway is partially closed off at the end with siding to protect the icemaker and is covered with a corrugated fiberglass roof, from the outbuilding's eaves to the fence, which effectively focuses the compressor noise toward and over the wooden fence. As ice melts or is removed to stock the truck(s), the icemaker cycles on and off to produce more ice – again, moreso during the summer than the winter. The owner has stated that to run the icemaker during the day causes it to overheat, therefore it is run mostly at night. In production mode, the icemaker runs about a 20-minute cycle – 7 minutes on, 13 minutes off, 7 minutes on, etc.
4. Weekday preparation of the truck(s) begins at 12:00 midnight and aims for a 4:00 a.m. departure. The one-person task produces negligible noise, except for the transfer of ice from the icemaker to the truck(s). Scooping ice into 5-gallon plastic buckets and dropping the insulated access door back into place produces quite the racket just prior to 4:00 a.m. In addition, the unit cycles back on again to replace the ice used.
5. There are no midnight preparations for weekends and holidays, but the walk-in refrigerator is still temperature controlled and the icemaker will still produce ice as needed to keep food on the truck(s) cold.
6. The bedrooms of my house are on the side of the house facing the common fence, fourteen feet away. My bedroom windows are about twenty-four feet from the icemaker. Sleeping with the windows open is simply not an option. In fact, sleeping requires that my windows be closed and a fan be used to provide air circulation and “white noise” to drown out the "60-cycle hum" of two electric compressors a few feet away.
7. The two compressors are not synchronized or coordinated - each can start up at any time and is independent of the other. The unpredictability is as unnerving as the noise.
8. These compressors are not ordinary air conditioners used for the comfort, health, and well-being of residents of the house. I am sure some personal use of ice and refrigerated storage exists, but the machinery's primary purpose is the conduct of business.
9. The portion of my yard between house and fence is virtually useless to me due to the noise produced by the compressors.
10. As an informational note, there is another walk-in box with a roof-mounted compressor in the same area. It is shielded (weather and noise) toward my neighbors’ house, but not toward my yard. To my knowledge, this third compressor has not been operated during the last year, but a date stenciled on it (8-29-05) indicates when it was last serviced.

The rules changed for TLC Catering when Manteca annexed these parcels, and "grandfathering" a permit for this type of home occupation in a residential area does not give them a free pass on other ordinances. On Sunday, March 2, 2008, I spoke personally with one of the owners about the noise from the compressor units. Much to my surprise, I was met with palpable hostility. I was flatly informed that they ran a permitted “grandfathered” business and they would make no changes whatsoever (such as, restrictions on time of unit operation, location of units, etc.) When I mentioned the City of Manteca noise ordinance, the retort included the accusation, “If you’re threatening me …,” and the conversation ended badly and abruptly.

Research of public records on the San Joaquin County website and in the County Recorder’s Office in Stockton reveals a couple of doggedly determined women who will do whatever it takes to conserve their capital and preserve their livelihood. I admit an admiration for them and their achievement over the years. Kudos to them.

But none of this helps me sleep at night, and I have suffered mentally and physically for it. I really do not care what business activity goes on next door - if Manteca permits it. I just don't want to listen to it, especially the loud, incessant, bothersome cycling of industrial compressors outside my window during nighttime hours.

My only choice is to file this noise complaint with the City of Manteca and seek its assistance to resolve this problem.


Richard W. Behling

This is the Associate Planner's entry:

Request #: 127445 Entered: 03/11/2008 1:27 PM
Status: Closed
Request Type: Complaint
Topic: Noise (other than animals)
Incident Time: Continuous

Incident Date:
Description: From: Lantz Rey in the Planning Division

On March 5th I received a letter from Richard Behling who lives at 786 Fishback Road. Mr. Behling had previously been into City hall to talk with Planning about putting up a masonry wall between his property and 810 Fishback. Mr. Behling's complaint is that the 810 Fishback property is home to a commercial catering business. This business operates catering trucks and has a commercial commissary on-site. As such, the business has two or three compressors required to maintain the temperature in the walk-in refrigerator and automatic ice maker that operate through out the night. These compressors are less than 20' from his bedroom and are keeping him awake (outlined in the letter).

As outlined in the email sent to Rex Osborn this morning, the business owners have a permit from the health department to operate in this location. However, the business does not have a valid business license and (even if the use is grandfathered) is exceeding provisions of the noise ordinance.

Mr. Behling can be reached on his cell phone at


Lantz Rey
City of Manteca, Associate Planner

Things immediately took a turn for the worse on March 12th. A police officer was assigned to visit my neighbors and inspect their permits as part of the needed background information check. Based on later research, I'm confident they showed him health department sanitation permits and a business permit from a nearby town, and emphatically repeated that they had a legal, grandfathered business. They got him so riled up with claims that I was harassing them - calling the police on them being proof of it - that he exceeded his mission, came over to my place, and banged on my door. I was preparing to leave for a meeting elsewhere, but I spoke with him and gave him a quick tour of the physical layout before walking out front with him. The Alpha female intercepted us and verbally prodded me until I lost control for a moment. Her main techniques were to soundlessly mouth inflammatory words at me whenever the police officer was not looking at her, and to throw out accusations shotgun-style and retreat in the resulting confusion. The "Gotcha!" smile which flashed across her face claimed victory. (Note to self: In any meeting with the Alpha female, require a non-participating observer who has this woman in clear view.) She returned to her house, but peeked through the blinds as we continued our conversation. The officer told me he could do nothing about the noise on this or any subsequent calls unless I signed a citizen's arrest warrant. I had to go.

The officer must have stayed longer and again spoken with the woman because on the following Sunday morning two of the women were out installing one 4x8 sheet of 1/4-inch plywood next to the fence and directly in front of the icemaker. That single, thin sheet was supposed to block the noise?! This minimalist effort was something the officer mentioned to me the previous Wednesday. Whew! Talk about an evasive maneuver, designed only to head off any real solution. At first I was furious at the crushing cynicism and absolute stupidity of their action, but quickly changed that to laughter, thinking that anyone with any intelligence would see through it. Wait until you see who bought into this lie.

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