When tension starts to build

Special to The Times

The construction site on the hill is a major aggravation to the neighborhood. Trucks and tractors come and go, moving dirt around the huge lot. The noise is loud and constant. Mud and debris collect in ditches out on the street. And a final insult: The construction company has hung a banner with its name writ large between two poles about 20 feet above the driveway entrance -- the kind of sign that more often says "Welcome to Camp Minnehaha."

"People were complaining that it's ugly and they don't want a billboard advertising some construction company over their street," said Bob Gale, who's active in one of the Pacific Palisades homeowners' associations. On behalf of the neighborhood, he asked the construction company to remove the sign, figuring that courtesy and goodwill could solve the problem. The site superintendent's response, then and now, was that he won't remove the sign unless the neighbors cite a specific regulation that requires him to do so.

There are many regulations covering issues related to residential construction sites -- hours, noise, debris in the street, even signs. But for anyone other than a contractor or a building official, it's not easy to find a specific rule -- in this case, Los Angeles City Building Code section 91.6216.5 and Zoning Code section 12.22C20(j) -- in the thousands of pages of regulations. Finally a call to the Department of Building and Safety sign division, elicited those regulations: There can be a total of 12 square feet of signs in the frontyard and they can be on walls or fences but not hoisted in the Camp Minnehaha position.

Many neighborhoods have to deal with such annoyances, given the construction activity around Southern California. In Los Angeles County alone, there will be an estimated 9,908 single-family housing permits issued this year, compared to 8,217 in 2002 and 4,375 a decade ago, according to the Construction Industry Research Board in Burbank.

In the hottest residential markets, many homes are built by developers, who, unlike people building their own dream houses, don't need to establish lasting bonds with the neighbors.

Common complaints involve the work hours and noise, then the dirt, debris and the number of trucks -- usually those blocking a complainer's driveway. Actually, "you don't have to worry about the stop time," said Lou Parker, executive vice president of the Southern California Builders Assn., "because most are off the job by 3:30."

It's the start time, and not just when the work starts but "when somebody delivers something before 7 a.m., not thinking that 7 is the start time," said Jan Helf, code enforcement coordinator for Irvine. "Or trucks will be idling outside the site at 6 or 6:30, waiting."

Addressing complaints

The California Building Code and associated municipal codes include regulations covering almost all such complaints, and city and state regulations are closely related.

"All cities must enforce the California code," explained Chuck Daleo, a building consultant who was a building official with L.A. County for 21 years and with the city of Fullerton for 13. "They can amend it to be more restrictive but not more lenient, reflecting differences in climate, geography or topography." Or just citizen preference.

The hours for residential construction in Los Angeles, for example, are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays (6 p.m. for grading) and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. In Irvine, hours are more limited -- 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. And in Santa Monica, known for putting people above commerce, the hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Some contractors limit their Santa Monica jobs, given what they say are particularly stringent rules on everything from work hours to trash disposal, increasing the building time and their costs.

The main point of building codes is safety, assuring that what goes up won't fall down. Therefore, the codes tend to focus on materials and construction. But they also address the safety of people near the site during construction.

Requirements for fencing property during demolition and construction, for example, keep debris and building materials safely inside and keep out interlopers who may do harm and suffer harm.

Some regulations are as concerned with comfort as they are with safety, because nuisance and threat are not so far apart. Dust control measures, which involve wetting down surfaces, are required in residential areas during excavation, earth-moving, sand-blasting and demolition because dust is not just unpleasant but also hazardous to health.

There are also rules against accumulation of trash and/or debris on the property, the sidewalk, the parkway and the street beyond, anywhere it might "interfere with or obstruct the free passage of pedestrians or vehicles." If a sidewalk is being replaced, alternative passage must be provided.

Noise, like signs, seems more irritating than dangerous, but the codes consider it a serious issue. "There are more restrictions on noise than just the hours of construction," said Tim McCormick, building officer for Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Municipal Code restricts noise levels to 75 decibels, except "where compliance therewith is technically unfeasible," a loophole that would permit jackhammers or sandblasters, which register sound higher than 90 decibels. In Santa Monica, jackhammers can be used only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

These limits apply only to power equipment and hand tools. There's no mention of catering truck musical horns, loud radios on the scaffolding and louder crews or the constant beeping of trucks backing up -- all of which can grate on nerves.

Most contractors know their local regulations and are responsible for their sub-contractors' knowing them as well. What they don't know shouldn't be hard for them to learn. The Southern California Builders Assn.'s monthly newsletter runs a column on code regulations, written by building consultant Daleo, who also takes inquiries from members. Contractors can also get information at the building and safety office where they go for permits and plan checks or from their site inspectors.

Some cities don't wait to be asked. Los Angeles prints several prime rules about hours, noise, dust control and pedestrian protection on the building permit application. In Santa Monica every contractor who is issued a permit is given a two-page list of "construction-related violations," with applicable fines from $250 for a first violation of hours and noise limits to $500 for "construction debris in the public way" to $1,000 for removing a city tree without a permit.

A building and safety department can learn about possible violations in several ways, most often through its own inspectors. "Nine times out of 10 we see it before the neighbors do," said Bob Steinbach, an assistant bureau chief for L.A.'s Building and Safety Department. The problem may also be reported by street maintenance workers who see debris or by police officers, who handle complaints about after-hours noise. Even citizens can make a report via building and safety department phone lines, if they have the patience to move through the phone menus or be transferred several times just to leave a recorded message.

Enforcing the rules

And what then? Santa Monica is unique in its ticket procedure, adding to the fines a warning that failure to pay or continued violation could lead to revocation of a building permit or a business license, even criminal prosecution. A building department may also issue a corrective order to contractors or just talk to them, which could be as effective as an order or a ticket. "The city has a tremendous number of hammers they can use," Daleo said, including the suggestion of "a tough inspection ahead, and the contractors know what that means."

"The majority of complaints, over 80%, are resolved within 60 days," Steinbach said, usually by just "passing them on" to the contractor. Sometimes it's the complaining person who needs the talk therapy.

"Some of their concerns are not things we can do anything about," Steinbach said. If builders in Los Angeles "work beyond the hours allowed, for example, it's enforced by the LAPD, not Building and Safety. Or many times the complaint is about a construction impacting a neighbor's wall or damaging property, and that's a civil matter. Or they might complain about construction vehicles parked on the street, but it's a public street and they're allowed to park."

Sometimes people complain about noise even during the hours it's permitted.

"They don't like you to start at 7, they don't like you to work when their kids are home from school and they don't like you to work on Saturday," said L.A. contractor Richard Holz, who is sympathetic enough to such complaints to stop work for a while if someone is having a birthday party. But some people are just annoyed that there's building at all, he said, "maybe because it's no longer a vacant lot and they can't take their dog there."

Whether or not a problem is covered by a building code, neighbors should first talk directly to the contractor or owner to try to work it out amicably. "The people that come to us," said Santa Monica building official McCormick, "usually say they've tried to do that first."

The response is as variable as human nature. Some contractors brush it off, responding only to higher authorities. Many say they weren't aware of the problem and promise to talk to their subcontractors or foremen. Others just fix the problem.

"Most contractors are sensitive to the neighborhood," Daleo said. "The percentage that don't follow the rules are the same ones that don't observe other social proprieties."

But to be accommodating isn't just good etiquette: It's good business. "They're going to be there for a number of weeks," said Parker at the builders association, "so they won't go out of their way to anger a neighborhood."

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How to report code violations

To report construction code violations (hours of work, noise, debris etc.) in a residential neighborhood or to ask about code regulations, call:

* Los Angeles: Department of Building and Safety's customer call center, (888) LA4-BUILD (888-524-2845).

* Santa Monica: Building and Safety Division's general number, (310) 458-8355, and ask for code compliance. To report a violation of construction hours only, (310) 458-8991 (24 hours).

* Irvine: Building and Safety Division's number for code enforcement (949) 724-6326.

* Other cities: Ask for similar municipal departments.

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