Proposed law would restrict activities conducted on construction sites located in close proximity to a school while classes are being held. On June 25, 2015, the City Council Committee on Environmental Protection held a public hearing on Intro 420, which would restrict the level of permissible noise emitted from construction sites located within 75 feet of either a public or private school. The proposed law would prohibit construction noise above 45 decibels during normal prekindergarten, middle school, and high school operating hours, and provides for the continuous monitoring of such noise levels while school is in session. Intro 420 was introduced in July 2014 by its prime sponsors, Council members Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal.
Intro 420’s purpose is to ameliorate unsound classroom conditions created by active construction sites located within a close proximity to operational schoolhouses. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published the results of a study conducted in July 2013 that includes factual findings of a direct relationship between students’ “routine exposure to noise” at a level of 85 decibels and an “increased risk of permanent hearing damage.”
Speakers at the June 25th hearing included parents of affected students, professors, doctors, attorneys, and construction industry representatives. Council member Levine testified that the current New York City construction boom has continued to adversely affect schools across the City, noting one particularly egregious instance where construction activities conducted across the street from Public School 51, located in Hell’s Kitchen, caused students in attendance to experience “headaches, nose bleeds, and skin rashes.” As a result, P.S. 51 moved its operations for the duration of the construction to a temporary location in the Upper East Side. Council member Levine testified that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s recommended standards are consistent with the time, place, and manner restrictions that Intro 420 seeks to place upon construction companies operating in close proximity to operational schoolhouses.
Thomas Hays, an M.D. in pediatrics and Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, testified that studies stemming from the “best available science” support Intro 420’s noise-level cap of 45 decibels, and noted that such studies show a direct correlation between background-noise levels higher than 45 decibels in classrooms and delayed reading comprehension in students regularly occupying such classrooms. Further, Dr. Hays testified that students exposed to 85 decibels of noise—one decibel below the average noise level typically emitted from construction sites—are subject to inner-ear damage.
Lauren Zajac, an M.D. and Pediatrician in the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital, testified that noise levels above 45 decibels can have a negative impact on students’ “concentration, motivation, memory, and performance,” and noted the higher degree of noise-sensitivity experienced by students with “sensory impairments, problems with inattention, or autism spectrum disorders.”
Council member Rosenthal commented on the hardship that will be faced by construction companies if they are required to plan their work schedule around school calendars and hours of operation, and questioned the panel of testifying doctors about whether they knew of any noise-mitigating techniques or strategies that would aid the issue presented to affected schools. Dr. Hays testified that walls could be erected around the construction site to lessen the amount of noise leaving the construction site, and noted that thicker windows could be installed in school buildings to prevent the noise from entering classrooms. However, Erica Brody, an M.D. and General Pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital, testified that these proposed alternatives would also negatively impact students’ health; even if noise is prevented from entering the school building, the students must be able to play outside and exercise daily. Both Dr. Hays and Dr. Brody agreed resoundingly that the best solution is to disallow loud construction activities near schools while such schools are in session.
Ross Holden, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the New York City School Construction Authority, testified in opposition to the proposed law by noting that the prohibition on construction activities while school is in session provides an unreasonably short window of time to conduct such activities. Mr. Holden testified to the significant delays that will be imposed upon construction projects, and noted the increased labor costs construction companies will be forced to pay, “due to second shift or night differential labor rates.” Further, Mr. Holden commented on the pre-construction meetings routinely held with the school community prior to the commencement of construction operations, and the ongoing open communication that exists throughout the duration of such construction projects.
Several speakers testified in opposition to the bill for its failure to take into consideration the heightened baseline-level of ambient noise that exists in New York City generally. Donald Ranshte, Senior Vice President of Building Trades Employers’ Association, suggested that restrictions be placed upon specific pieces of equipment that have been found to emit higher levels of ambient noise.
At the conclusion of the hearing, then-Committee Chairman Donovan J. Richards characterized the issue as one of “common sense,” noting that the Committee’s primary concern is to protect the children’s ability to “sit in a classroom and learn without having to hear a jackhammer every five seconds. … Our children deserve to be able to learn in an environment that’s conducive to learning and for their health.”
The Committee postponed voting on the proposed law until a future meeting.
City Council: Public Hearing Int 0420-2014 (June 25, 2015).
By: Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein (Jessica is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2015)