When Construction Projects Go Awry Avoiding Projects and Residential Headaches

 Construction and renovation projects are necessary, but often troublesome—especially when they're occurring next door. For many residents and building  owners adjacent to an ongoing project, noise, debris and construction zones  diminish respective quality of life. The list of grievances fielded by property  managers can be long, varied and in some cases include damages, or worse.  

 “Some of the major problems that can occur when a neighboring structure is  undergoing major construction/renovations include noise, parking and traffic  issues, nuisances from dust, odor, debris, and actual physical damage from  vibrations and accidents,” says Jeffrey Sirot, Community Association Practice Group attorney with the law  firm of Greenbaum Rowe Smith and Davis. LLP in Roseland.  

 Russ Fernandes, principal and vice president with the Liberty Corner-based Becht  Engineering, explains that the most common complaints that occur with the  average “project next door” are those of noise, dust and debris.“Dust and debris can blow into windows and onto the sidewalk of the neighboring  buildings bringing other complaints. Fortunately, many complaints regarding  neighboring construction projects tend to be minor in nature,” he continues. “Such problems are often nuisance complaints from residents resulting from the  inconvenience caused by the project. Closed sidewalks and sidewalk bridges may  cause the need for residents to alter their normal travel routines, which can  result in complaints.”  

 Renovation projects are usually shorter in duration and thus produce smaller  issues such as the aforementioned dust, odor and debris. However, no matter the  size of the project, the presence of construction crews can disrupt neighboring  residents’ lifestyles.  

 “Most contractors start their work days early which can put them at odds with  their neighbors,” says Fernandes. “Construction sites tend to be noisy under the best of circumstances but if a  resident works a night shift or just wants to sleep in, this can result in  conflict. If work is occurring on Saturdays, the complaints can multiply.”  

 Oversight and Due Diligence

 When fielding and dealing with complaints, there is a chain of command. Irate  residents, for example, are instructed to report concerns to their building  manager and/or board members. It is not recommended—no matter how frustrating the immediate situation might be—to take the issue up with construction workers or foremen who are on-site. They  are simply following directives, and are not in a position to mediate between  the job at hand and its impact on residents nearby.  

 “When there is an issue, there is often a lot of back and forth and follow up  before the situation is resolved,” says Larry Silverman, president of the Union City, New Jersey-based Atlantic  Management. He explains that a neighboring property recently underwent a  construction project and in the process damaged a fence on the property he  represents. “Ultimately the builder fixed the fence but again, it required a lot of follow  up,” says Silverman.  

 Sirot explains that one of his firm’s clients owned a valuable property with several acres of land. The adjacent  landowner began construction on a new building, with little regard for the  actual approved plans or permits. “The neighbor built a wall without approval that redirected the underground flow  of water and drainage. The result was that one-hundred-year-old trees began to  lose ground support and fall,” says Sirot. “We were able to poke a fork in the ground and watch water spring up! In  addition, the vibrations from tamping down the driveway caused cracks  throughout our client’s structure and the outdoor lights from the adjacent landowner’s project lit up our client’s property throughout the night.”  

 When issues become serious, as with the example above, it is imperative that  building managers communicate with the adjacent property owners as well as due  his or her due diligence in reviewing permits and plans approved by the city or  municipality.  

 “City ordinances can help to keep problems and complaints to a minimum. Noise  ordinances, for example, help to minimize complaints and provide quantitative  standards against which to judge complaints,” says Fernandes. “Safety ordinances, requiring sidewalk bridges for example, help to maintain the  safety of the public, including neighbors, from the risks of falling debris.  The entire permitting process is intended to protect the safety of the public.”  

 Fernandes added that certain building owners will cut corners and try to save  money by circumventing the permitting process. “If there is any question as to whether a project has received proper permits and  approvals, contact the building department,” he says.  

 Going from Bad to Worse

 There have been unfortunate and deadly accidents resulting from faulty  construction such as collapsed buildings or cranes toppling over which was the  case in March 2008 when a crane failed and destroyed buildings on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While these examples rightly cause concern for residents,  most problems are less harmful.  

 “If a building is attached or is close together, there will often be minor cracks  in the wall, especially stucco walls,” says Silverman. “Additionally, things can get stirred up underground which can be problematic. In  the case of the cracks, for example, we had to find the person in charge which  is this case—and is often the case—was the owner of the construction company. They fixed the cracks. It’s best to let the management company handle these types of issues.” Silverman adds that in many cases where cracks resulted from adjacent  construction, an engineer had to be hired to ensure that the damage wasn’t structural.  

 Property managers always have a full plate but their responsibility increases  during neighboring construction projects as they must ensure that the project  goes as planned. “Managers should make sure that they have notified all appropriate municipal  offices and officials that they are the manager of the property and the  appropriate agent to receive legal notices. If an adjacent property requires variances or township approval for  construction/renovation work, it is likely they are entitled to notice and an  opportunity to appear at any hearings and raise any objections,” says Sirot.  

 The first red flag for managers are adjacent to any proposed project is if they  do not receive notice of permit. In this is the case, it is suggested to be  proactive and contact respective counsel before the first shovel hits the  ground and hammers are swung.  

 “We have seen these notices go to prior management companies and get filed in the  trash can. By the time the work commences, the property has lost its ability to  lodge any objections and may be forced to accept undesirable consequences, such  as increased traffic flow or new and undesirable uses of the neighboring  property,” says Sirot. “Once a project is approved and commences, the manager should monitor the project  and react to any problems as they arise. If any particular issue cannot be  resolved by the manager and the adjacent unit owner or manager, again, do not  wait to contact counsel.”  

 Since the world is not perfect and ethics are often in question, many serious  problems do occur that can’t be handled amicably. It is with these cases that the property manager should  contact legal counsel so appropriate legal motions can proceed.  

 “In cases where a project has caused damage that is not repaired, or properly  repaired, invariably lawyers will be getting involved. The manager becomes the  facilitator and coordinator for the board. Attorneys with the appropriate  experience need to be interviewed by the board and hired,” says Fernandes. “Again, communication will become key. Keeping residents informed of the progress  of repairs and of any lawsuit, is necessary for the residents to feel that the  board and management is performing appropriately to correct the conditions  affecting the building.”  

 On average, issues resulting from construction and renovation projects are minor  and can be addressed without involving lawyers and judges. The best defense is  a manager’s due diligence and a watchful eye. “Generally if there is an issue and the manager can speak to the owner of the  construction company that is doing the work, that person is often helpful and  they will take care of the issue—it just requires follow up,” says Silverman. “It comes down to communication.”  

 As is the case with all occupations, sometimes a younger property manager will  not handle the issue properly due to inexperience. While this can cause  problems in the short run, it presents a learning opportunity for all parties  involved.  

 “A manager just needs to be honest and learn from the experience,” Sirot advises. “If a manager sees that he or she is having difficulty or is losing control of  events, the manager should seek help immediately from within his or her own  company whether it is the president, regional manager or counsel,” he continues. “The recognition that one needs help will be valued far more than simply standing  by as events spiral out of control.”  

 Fernandes adds, “It’s important for managers to communicate with the residents by keeping them  informed via emails or meetings on the progress of a project, as that can go a  long way to prevent complaints,” he continues. “If people know what is going on around them they can often be more forgiving of  the inconveniences of nearby construction.”                       

 W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey  Cooperator.  

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