Construction and renovation projects are necessary, but often troublesome—especially when they're occurring next door. For many residents and building owners adjacent to an ongoing project, noise, debris and construction zones diminish respective quality of life. The list of grievances fielded by property managers can be long, varied and in some cases include damages, or worse.
“Some of the major problems that can occur when a neighboring structure is undergoing major construction/renovations include noise, parking and traffic issues, nuisances from dust, odor, debris, and actual physical damage from vibrations and accidents,” says Jeffrey Sirot, Community Association Practice Group attorney with the law firm of Greenbaum Rowe Smith and Davis. LLP in Roseland.
Russ Fernandes, principal and vice president with the Liberty Corner-based Becht Engineering, explains that the most common complaints that occur with the average “project next door” are those of noise, dust and debris.“Dust and debris can blow into windows and onto the sidewalk of the neighboring buildings bringing other complaints. Fortunately, many complaints regarding neighboring construction projects tend to be minor in nature,” he continues. “Such problems are often nuisance complaints from residents resulting from the inconvenience caused by the project. Closed sidewalks and sidewalk bridges may cause the need for residents to alter their normal travel routines, which can result in complaints.”
Renovation projects are usually shorter in duration and thus produce smaller issues such as the aforementioned dust, odor and debris. However, no matter the size of the project, the presence of construction crews can disrupt neighboring residents’ lifestyles.
“Most contractors start their work days early which can put them at odds with their neighbors,” says Fernandes. “Construction sites tend to be noisy under the best of circumstances but if a resident works a night shift or just wants to sleep in, this can result in conflict. If work is occurring on Saturdays, the complaints can multiply.”
Oversight and Due Diligence
When fielding and dealing with complaints, there is a chain of command. Irate residents, for example, are instructed to report concerns to their building manager and/or board members. It is not recommended—no matter how frustrating the immediate situation might be—to take the issue up with construction workers or foremen who are on-site. They are simply following directives, and are not in a position to mediate between the job at hand and its impact on residents nearby.
“When there is an issue, there is often a lot of back and forth and follow up before the situation is resolved,” says Larry Silverman, president of the Union City, New Jersey-based Atlantic Management. He explains that a neighboring property recently underwent a construction project and in the process damaged a fence on the property he represents. “Ultimately the builder fixed the fence but again, it required a lot of follow up,” says Silverman.
Sirot explains that one of his firm’s clients owned a valuable property with several acres of land. The adjacent landowner began construction on a new building, with little regard for the actual approved plans or permits. “The neighbor built a wall without approval that redirected the underground flow of water and drainage. The result was that one-hundred-year-old trees began to lose ground support and fall,” says Sirot. “We were able to poke a fork in the ground and watch water spring up! In addition, the vibrations from tamping down the driveway caused cracks throughout our client’s structure and the outdoor lights from the adjacent landowner’s project lit up our client’s property throughout the night.”
When issues become serious, as with the example above, it is imperative that building managers communicate with the adjacent property owners as well as due his or her due diligence in reviewing permits and plans approved by the city or municipality.
“City ordinances can help to keep problems and complaints to a minimum. Noise ordinances, for example, help to minimize complaints and provide quantitative standards against which to judge complaints,” says Fernandes. “Safety ordinances, requiring sidewalk bridges for example, help to maintain the safety of the public, including neighbors, from the risks of falling debris. The entire permitting process is intended to protect the safety of the public.”
Fernandes added that certain building owners will cut corners and try to save money by circumventing the permitting process. “If there is any question as to whether a project has received proper permits and approvals, contact the building department,” he says.
Going from Bad to Worse
There have been unfortunate and deadly accidents resulting from faulty construction such as collapsed buildings or cranes toppling over which was the case in March 2008 when a crane failed and destroyed buildings on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While these examples rightly cause concern for residents, most problems are less harmful.
“If a building is attached or is close together, there will often be minor cracks in the wall, especially stucco walls,” says Silverman. “Additionally, things can get stirred up underground which can be problematic. In the case of the cracks, for example, we had to find the person in charge which is this case—and is often the case—was the owner of the construction company. They fixed the cracks. It’s best to let the management company handle these types of issues.” Silverman adds that in many cases where cracks resulted from adjacent construction, an engineer had to be hired to ensure that the damage wasn’t structural.
Property managers always have a full plate but their responsibility increases during neighboring construction projects as they must ensure that the project goes as planned. “Managers should make sure that they have notified all appropriate municipal offices and officials that they are the manager of the property and the appropriate agent to receive legal notices. If an adjacent property requires variances or township approval for construction/renovation work, it is likely they are entitled to notice and an opportunity to appear at any hearings and raise any objections,” says Sirot.
The first red flag for managers are adjacent to any proposed project is if they do not receive notice of permit. In this is the case, it is suggested to be proactive and contact respective counsel before the first shovel hits the ground and hammers are swung.
“We have seen these notices go to prior management companies and get filed in the trash can. By the time the work commences, the property has lost its ability to lodge any objections and may be forced to accept undesirable consequences, such as increased traffic flow or new and undesirable uses of the neighboring property,” says Sirot. “Once a project is approved and commences, the manager should monitor the project and react to any problems as they arise. If any particular issue cannot be resolved by the manager and the adjacent unit owner or manager, again, do not wait to contact counsel.”
Since the world is not perfect and ethics are often in question, many serious problems do occur that can’t be handled amicably. It is with these cases that the property manager should contact legal counsel so appropriate legal motions can proceed.
“In cases where a project has caused damage that is not repaired, or properly repaired, invariably lawyers will be getting involved. The manager becomes the facilitator and coordinator for the board. Attorneys with the appropriate experience need to be interviewed by the board and hired,” says Fernandes. “Again, communication will become key. Keeping residents informed of the progress of repairs and of any lawsuit, is necessary for the residents to feel that the board and management is performing appropriately to correct the conditions affecting the building.”
On average, issues resulting from construction and renovation projects are minor and can be addressed without involving lawyers and judges. The best defense is a manager’s due diligence and a watchful eye. “Generally if there is an issue and the manager can speak to the owner of the construction company that is doing the work, that person is often helpful and they will take care of the issue—it just requires follow up,” says Silverman. “It comes down to communication.”
As is the case with all occupations, sometimes a younger property manager will not handle the issue properly due to inexperience. While this can cause problems in the short run, it presents a learning opportunity for all parties involved.
“A manager just needs to be honest and learn from the experience,” Sirot advises. “If a manager sees that he or she is having difficulty or is losing control of events, the manager should seek help immediately from within his or her own company whether it is the president, regional manager or counsel,” he continues. “The recognition that one needs help will be valued far more than simply standing by as events spiral out of control.”
Fernandes adds, “It’s important for managers to communicate with the residents by keeping them informed via emails or meetings on the progress of a project, as that can go a long way to prevent complaints,” he continues. “If people know what is going on around them they can often be more forgiving of the inconveniences of nearby construction.”
W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.