Legal Updates – Turning Down the Volume

Turning Down the Volume on Nuisance Noise The New City of Toronto Noise By-Law

By Quintin Johnstone, CEO Riskboss

Following several years of consultation with stakeholders, on October 1, 2019 the City of Toronto launched an updated Noise By-Law, the first major revision to this By-law in many decades (Toronto Municipal Code Chapter 591, Noise). The new By-law dramatically changes the landscape for noise issues in Toronto. For decades there was a core qualitative and subjective element that was the predominant feature in the old By-law, but now this has been replaced with an overreaching quantitative and objective component.

According to City officials the new By-law, “Brings clarity and consistency to the process.”

The old By-law relied heavily on a complainant’s own perspective and version of the events that was hard for authorities and the courts to enforce. The new By-law relies upon fact-based evidence that is independent such as measurements gathered and captured on sound meters by City officials.

Similar to the old By-law, the most restrictive provision of the new By-law applies (Section 591.2.10 refers) but unlike the old By-law, unwanted noise must be, “Unreasonable and Persistent” before action can be taken by City officials.

The new By-law defines unreasonable as,

“Any noise that would disturb the peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort or convenience of a reasonable person in the circumstances. Unreasonable noise does not include commonplace household or workplace sounds such as sound from furniture being moved, children playing or people engaging in conversation,”

[Excerpt: www.toronto.ca]

It also defines persistent as,

“Any noise that is continuously heard for a period of ten minutes or more or intermittently over a period of one hour or more.”

So for example, if a neighbour’s dog is barking, City officials will not act unless there is proof of it being an ongoing concern (Persistent). This means that keeping a record of dates and times is essential before lodging complaints. Using building resources such as security for independent verification and documenting of all noise complaints is still an absolute must as a starting point to be followed up by property management later.

The new By-law also relaxes the old restrictions for bars, restaurants, nightclubs, concerts, and fitness facilities, etc. that project noise that may affect residential properties so long as decibel levels are kept in check and are within allowable limits under the new By-law. There are different decibel levels before and after 11pm daily for amplified sound. This is a substantial change from the old By-law that had an absolute zero tolerance on any noise that may affect residential neighbourhoods. So for example, under the old By-law if a restaurant had outside speakers, noise could not project past the property line if any residential property or any resident may be affected.

Under the old By-law it was simply a matter of whether a resident could hear anything regardless of the decibel level and in the subjective opinion of a resident, the noise was found to be disturbing.

The new By-law does create greater controls for construction in that it eliminates, for example, the exemption for continuous pouring of cement outside of permitted hours that impacts the quality of life for residents in neighbouring buildings. Given the level of construction growth in Toronto, this is a very positive step in the right direction.

The new By-law maintains the old timelines that allows noise from construction from 7am to 7pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 7pm on Saturday with Sundays and holidays remaining as an absolute prohibition.

Exemptions under the new By-law follow the same procedure as the old By-law in that after an application is received, the local City Councillor gets involved to determine whether it is in the best interests of the local community to hold noisy community events. If allowed, City inspectors attend to keep watch using sound monitoring devices.

The new direction by the City has moved the responsibility of dealing with noise complaints away from the traditional response by police. There has been a prolonged erosion of the ability of police to attend noise complaints given the sustained reduction in personnel resources and higher calls for service as the City grows. The courts have been long overwhelmed dealing with charges under the old By- law that burdened the system to overcapacity. The City has hired a new team of By-law Enforcement Officers from the Municipal Licensing and Standards Division (MLS) to replace the more traditional responses to noise issues. It is reported that this team will be available to respond to noise complaints from 6am to 2am daily, weekends included. Noise complaints will now be centrally channeled, analyzed and serviced through the 311 system.

Media reports; however, reveal that the new MLS team is far less than effective has been verified. An online source who complained about a loud house party received the following response from the Toronto 311 system,

“A service request can be submitted for investigation by MLS, however noise complaints are assigned to an office within 5 business days – we don’t send bylaw out as the noise is happening. It’s best to start a service request with us, and call Toronto Police.”

[Excerpt: City of Toronto 311 System] [Emphasis added]

As it appears, police are still the only source for help in real time but that is if police resources are not stretched beyond capacity at the time of calling as noise complaints hold one of the lowest priorities for calls for service. That means that residential condominiums must reply more heavily on security resources to independently verify and document noise complaints because simply put, the police cannot be expected to, and highly likely will not, attend those calls any more.

It is clear by the City of Toronto website related to the changes to the noise By-law that there is a new direction that asks all City residents to be tolerant and reasonable. The new By-law even goes as far as to recommend attempts at direct intervention by affected parties and community based services prior to escalating to the authorities. Enforcement action by the City may include education and mediation before charges are laid. One of the most notable components of the new By-law is that maximum fines have increased for, “Unreasonable” noise violations from $5,000 to $100,000.

“Toronto is a growing, vibrant city, where noise can be common. We encourage residents to exercise a reasonable degree of tolerance and to review the bylaw regulations by type of noise (found below) prior to submitting a service request. If you have a concern, consider speaking with those responsible for making the noise to give them an opportunity to correct the issue. If this approach does not work, you can call 311.

The City has partnered with St. Stephen’s Community House, an organization that provides free community mediation services to Toronto residents, as an alternative means to resolving a dispute with the help of neutral mediators. Mediation can help deliver better service, divert some cases from bylaw enforcement, and get to the root cause of long-standing community or neighbour-to-neighbour issues. The process is separate from bylaw enforcement and completely confidential.” [Excerpt: www.toronto.ca]

According to many, it takes away the, “Grey area” of the past law that was the source of a lot of frustration by complainants, offenders and officials alike. According to representatives from the City, the new By-law with the new enforcement team will provide Toronto with enforceable objective tools and analytics that will weed out the worst offenders.

All in all, this change was inevitable and frankly long overdue given the highly ineffective, traditional and punitive model that drained police and court resources. It is yet to be determined how this relatively new By-law will impact condominium lifestyles and likely it will take some time before case law makes its way through the courts to further determine its overall effectiveness.

For information on how to challenge nuisance noise throughout the GTA and in your community contact us for our recently updated White Paper entitled, “Turning Down the Volume”.