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A battle over noisy neighbours raises doubts about how the city keeps the peace in Toronto
Nov. 16, 2022

When Robert “Red” Armstrong stepped onto his balcony on weekend mornings this summer, he could hear the birds and cicadas and the muffled sound of traffic.

But by midafternoon, that peace was often shattered by pounding bass and Top 40 jams, sometimes punctuated by airhorns, blaring off the backyard patios of nearby restaurants in Parkdale until around 10 p.m.

“It’s essentially just like being punched in the face repeatedly,” said Armstrong, a punk-turned-tradesman, no stranger to noise himself.

“That level of noise is fine if it’s your choice to participate in it,” he said. But to have festival-like volumes forced on you nearly every weekend of the summer for hours on end? “How’s it not aggressive?”

In July, he lodged a complaint with the city. It turns out he wasn’t alone: over the past two summers, the Octopus Garden, a trendy, “secret” patio near Queen and Dufferin Streets, received 111 noise complaints from 25 different residents.

In September 2021, the city had charged the weeks-old business for violating its revamped noise bylaw. But the case remains before the courts -- even though nearly two-thirds of complaints came this year.

Armstrong’s quest for quiet highlights an eternal compromise faced by Canada’s largest city: How do you balance the desire among residents for peace while supporting businesses and allowing others to let loose? It also reveals a noise enforcement system that’s mired in bureaucracy and, at times, frustratingly ineffective, despite an overhaul only three years ago to make it “easier to understand and enforce noise complaints.”

In 2019, the city set specific decibel limits for amplified sound and established the so-called Noise Team, a crew of 24 bylaw enforcement officers equipped with sound-measuring technology who, in rotating shifts, work from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. In 2022, its budget neared $3.5 million.

And yet noise complaints continue to rise, doubling between 2015 and 2021. They’re on pace to exceed 20,000 this year -- over 3,000 more than last year, with amplified noise accounting for more than half. And the city will likely come under even more pressure now that its CafeTO program, which draws thousands to outdoor patios in warm weather, has become permanent.

Near Armstrong’s Parkdale home, the city’s approach to noise has pitted neighbours against businesses and exasperated members of the Noise Team, whose only advice to livid locals was to keep dialing 311.

Longtime local Beth Nobes said that with the music blasting, she felt like she and her family had been kicked out of their own backyard during the prime summer months.

“Your whole afternoon and your evening is overcome by their music that they are forcing us to listen to,” said Nobes.

According to the city, once a complaint is lodged, the Noise Team contacts the complainant, and if the grievance appears credible, an officer will aim to visit the scene next time noise is expected, which could be days later. Since 2018, police only intervene if the noise involves demonstrations, private parties, or disorderly conduct.

Using a so-called sound meter, the bylaw officer checks to see if the noise falls within the decibel limit where the complaint was made. Amplified sound can’t exceed 55 decibels from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Overnight, that limit falls to 50 decibels -- though noise can still contribute to various health issues at only 42 decibels.

If the business exceeds the limit, it may receive a $500 fine. If it continues to flout the rules, it could be taken to court and face up to a $100,000 fine. But, as with the Octopus Garden, it can take more than a year for a case to come before a justice of the peace.

As Armstrong puts it: “There’s nothing they can do to stop the noise in the moment, which when you’re making the complaint -- that’s what you want!”

The city’s sluggish approach to enforcement might be the problem, but Nobes also thinks the limit for amplified noise is just too high.

Cameron Wilson, an operating partner at Three Hearts, the members-only club that runs the Octopus Garden, said he scarcely heard from the city this summer. He said he only learned about complaints last year when a bylaw officer visited that September, measured the loudness of their music, and charged and fined the business.

“No warning, no heads up,” he told the Star. “That was the first that I had heard of anything at all -- period.”

When asked, the city said it doesn’t alert accused noisemakers “each and every time” a complaint comes in. It plans to release a review of its new bylaw at the end of next year.

Nearby residents who’ve tried to confront the Octopus Garden directly say they’ve been rudely dismissed.

A bouncer once told Nobes to come back with a lawyer after she asked them to turn it down.

Wilson said he doesn’t condone that type of behaviour, but he also feels the neighbourhood unfairly vilified the business from the start, alleging multiple instances of vandalism, including compost being dumped on his business partner’s 1965 Dodge Charger, causing thousands of dollars of damage.

Meanwhile, the volume at the Octopus Garden led neighbouring patios to turn their own music up, in what Wilson described as a “battle of the bands.”

After none last year, the Parkdale Drink received 23 noise complaints this summer. In July, the city charged the business with non-compliance, and the case remains before the courts. Another private patio between the Parkdale Drink and the Octopus Garden received five grievances. Neither business could be reached for comment.

Nobes said she has filed at least 12 noise complaints; emailed her local councillor, Gord Perks, six times; called the police, she estimates, four times; been assigned three different bylaw enforcement officers; and provided one witness statement to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

“We continuously are stuck for 45 minutes on 311, waiting, going through the whole spiel with those poor people,” Nobes said. “We don’t know if anything happens.”

Carleton Grant, Toronto’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards, said the Noise Team shouldn’t be considered immediate responders.

“We do our best,” he said. “We don’t make everyone happy. But what we do is try to strike a balance.”

How can the city tell whether its approach to what he calls one of its “most complex challenges” is working? “We enforce over 31 different bylaws,” Grant said. “It’s very challenging to say which ones we enforce well and which ones we don’t.”

In large part, the bylaw’s success rests on noisemakers voluntarily keeping it down once contacted. That’s what the Octopus Garden ultimately chose to do, according to Wilson.

He admits his team was ignorant of the noise rules last summer, but after being charged, he decided they’d no longer hold late night events outside. And they bought sound meters to stay within limits.

When the Noise Team visited this summer, the city said the business was indeed within the decibel limit -- and yet the complaints continued to pour in.

“It’s all of our city, and we have to coexist within it,” Wilson said. “The way we do that is by following the laws, right?”