“In common law, everyone is in general permitted to use their property for any purpose they choose, provided that the use of the property should not intrude unreasonably on the use and enjoyment by the neighbours of their properties”
Consider this unhappy scenario – you buy your dream home (or perhaps new business premises), only to find that you are afflicted with the noisiest and most unreasonable neighbours you have ever encountered. A friendly approach to them produces no result. Can you get a court order to stop the noise?
Let’s address that question with reference to two recent court cases, but first:
What must you prove?
To get a “final interdict” (in this instance a court order compelling the offenders to put an end to the noise) you have to prove three things –
1. “A clear right”,
2. “An injury actually committed or reasonably apprehended”, and
3. “The absence of similar protection by any other ordinary remedy” (in other words, you must show that you have no adequate alternative remedy available to you – an important aspect, as we shall see below).
In the suburbs: The pastor v the puppy daycare home business
“…the courts apply a reasonableness standard, which entails a balancing of the mutual and reciprocal rights and obligations of neighbours”
The scene in this first case is a suburban residential area in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs.
• A pastor, needing “a peaceful environment to write, research, study and counsel his congregants”, applied to the High Court for an interdict against his neighbours. The problem was their home business in the form of a puppy daycare centre, operating in their garden and offering supervision, structured playtime, potty training, basic training, socialisation and so on for up to 17 dogs at a time.
• The complaint centered on barking on the property, triggering “a cacophony of barking from all the dogs in the neighbourhood” – starting at 6.30 am (Monday to Saturday) until 6 pm. This, said the pastor, was “disturbing and disruptive to the peaceful enjoyment of his property and to his daily activities”, plus it had seriously affected the value of his property.
• Before buying the property he had viewed it over a weekend when there was no noise, and, because it was important to him, had specifically asked the previous owner about whether there was a barking problem in the neighbourhood.
• After fruitless discussions with the neighbours, he reported them to the municipal authorities (the City of Cape Town), lodging complaints for almost 4 years, resulting only in the issue of a compliance notice which the City failed to enforce, and a failed attempt at prosecution.
• In the High Court the complainant’s attack relied not only on common law “nuisance law” but also on alleged contraventions of the Western Cape Noise Control Regulations (all local authorities have power to make such regulations in terms of National Regulations), the City’s Development Management Scheme (with its restrictions on home business activities) and Animal By-Laws.
• The puppy daycare business raised a series of defences to these lines of attack, and disputed many of the complainant’s factual allegations, but in the end result the Court ordered the business to stop operating immediately. The business activity, said the Court, was “abnormal use” of a residential property, and “While such noise may be bearable in a busy City, where there is a lot of activity, such as large volumes of traffic, the constant movement of people and crowds and noise created by businesses, it would definitely disturb the peace and serenity of a quiet neighbourhood where such noises are not expected, and to which the applicant is entitled.” (Emphasis supplied).
In the city: the multi-storey building and the noisy gym
“…What constitutes reasonable usage in any given case is dependent on various factors, including the general character of the area in question – persons living and working in an urban area would, for example, reasonably be expected, in general, to be more forbearing about a higher level of noise intrusion into their lives than neighbours living in a rural housing estate”
We move now to the second case, also in Cape Town but this time in the City Centre.
• The owners of a property in a multi-storey building in the centre of Cape Town (a married couple living there and an attorney running a law practice in it) approached the High Court for an interdict against the neighbouring gym on the grounds of a substantial noise nuisance. The married couple’s bedroom window is just over a metre away from the window and balcony of the gym.
• The gym’s premises are zoned for commercial use, and there was no dispute that the area was subject to “substantial traffic noise”, but the complaints centered on allegations that the gym produced “loud techno/dance music with a strong beat” and microphone-amplified voice instructions to attendees at gym classes – at times ranging from 6 am to 6.45 pm.
• Many of the facts of the matter were, as is common in such bitterly fought matters, in dispute, and ultimately the Court declined to grant the interdict partially on the grounds of unresolved disputes of fact. Clearly the fact that the area was subject to considerable levels of “inner-city noise” anyway played a part, but the deciding factor seems to have been the Court’s finding that the complainants had declined the neighbour’s offer to follow the processes of the local Noise Control Regulations, which the Court held to provide an “adequate alternative remedy”.
• Moral of this story – don’t expect too much peace and quiet in a city centre, and exhaust all alternative remedies before asking for an interdict!
Property buyers – do your “noise risk” homework upfront!
Which leads us to a general note of caution to anyone about to buy a property – prevention being as ever a lot better than cure, investigate and understand the potential for “noisy neighbours” disrupting your peace and quiet before putting in your offer.
For example, the pastor in the puppy case took at face value the seller’s reassurances about excessive barking in the neighbourhood – he could perhaps have saved himself 5 years of stress and trouble had he been a bit more cynical and returned to the neighbourhood at various times during the week just to check.
And bear in mind that what may be considered a totally unreasonable noise level in one context could be considered quite acceptable in another. As the Court in the gym case put it: “…the applicants cannot expect the quiet serenity of the suburbs while living in the inner-city, which comprises a mix of commercial and residential properties, and particularly having purchased a property that is immediately adjacent to a commercially-zoned property.”