Sunday, June 15, 2014
Griping neighbors need to check their facts
A handful of houses are being built in a small town in the Northeast United States. The town, known for its beaches and other attractions for summer vacationers, is a mix of full-time residents, summer renters and second-home owners who vanish in the winter but reappear shortly after Memorial Day.
In one particular neighborhood, where construction began several months ago on a home, locals have watched as trees were felled to clear the lot, the foundation was poured, framing went up, outside walls were constructed, and cabinets and appliances started to be moved in.
Year-round residents living nearby have responded to the work at every stage of construction. Among their gripes: "They took down too many trees." "Why'd they put the house so close to the neighbor's backyard?" "Why would anyone plant trees along the boundary line right before winter hits?"
No one has raised any of these issues with the builder or the owner, both of whom neighbors have described as seeming to be pretty nice guys.
Now that summer has arrived, and neighbors are spending more time outside, the finishing touches are being put on the house. Chief among these is the landscaping, including installation of stone that requires a significant amount of sawing to fit the pieces into patios and walkways. The noise and dust generated by this work are significant and neighbors once again have taken notice.
"I hope you're not a late sleeper," one said to another, observing that the sawing had been starting at 7 a.m. and ending well after 7 p.m.
Convinced that the workers are violating a town ordinance that prohibits starting work on residential construction before 8 a.m., some neighbors think they should report the workers to town officials. Others have argued that, in spite of what they believe to be a violation of local noise ordinances, reporting the assumed violation would only slow the work and prolong completion of the house.
What's the right thing to do?
Short of reporting the violation, the neighbors could break from their past behavior and talk to the builder or the owner (who are both regularly on site) about their concerns.
Even if they don't do this, the neighbors are not ethically obligated to report what they assume to be a violation. However, town officials rarely patrol all the areas of town where construction is occurring. If neighbors don't report a problem, it's unlikely to become known to those charged with enforcing local ordinances.
But while it's long been assumed by neighbors that the legal start time for activities that produce neighborhood noise is 8 a.m., none of them has bothered to call the town hall or check the town website to see exactly what the ordinance says.
Such a check of the site took exactly two minutes. There, it was clearly worded that such noise-producing activity must be limited to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
The new neighbor and his builder are starting and finishing each day's work precisely when the town permits them to do so. The right thing is for the neighbors to let them get the job done.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.