Armed with an inconspicuous gray camera that fits in the palm of his hand, noise vigilante Dietmar Detering looked for his next target in one of the noisiest places in New York City: Times Square.
There was the wax museum Madame Tussauds, which Detering said blasted “insane” screams outside its entrance for Halloween until he intervened. There was Applebee’s, which had a loudspeaker out front until Detering said he started filing complaints. He said he waged a long battle with the Margaritaville Resort, which finally removed its outdoor speakers playing Jimmy Buffett tunes. Detering took pride in the number of businesses finally in compliance with the city’s noise rules – except for the restaurant Yard House, which boasts that it has “great food, classic rock and the world’s largest selection of draft beer.” A speaker was outside the entrance, blasting music.
“It’s down to Yard House right now,” the 52-year-old Queens resident said.
They had to be stopped.
“We see noise pollution spread like cancer in neighborhoods,” Detering said. “If one store gets away with it, the neighboring store says, ‘Why is that store getting my walk-in customers? I want that, too.’”
It was a typical night for Detering, who states in court papers that he spends dozens of hours each week documenting businesses allegedly violating noise rules barring amplified sound from being blasted onto sidewalks. Under a law dating back to 1972, citizen complainants can submit evidence of a noise violation to the Department of Environmental Protection and serve as prosecutors in administrative law court if the city doesn’t promptly investigate the complaint. If the violation is upheld, the complainant gets at least 25% of the fine once it’s paid.
The system seemingly worked without major controversy until Detering – and one other vigilante – recently began filing noise complaints in extraordinary numbers.
“Citizen noise enforcement has been a significant problem for many businesses this year,” DEP Commissioner Angela Licata testified at a City Council committee hearing in October. “Businesses are receiving multiple violations from citizen enforcers all at once without a warning and racking up thousands of dollars in fines for minor infractions. We do not think this is fair.”
Detering has filed 3,883 noise complaints since early last year, according to the city. The minimum fine of a first time offending business is $440.
That means if only half of Detering’s complaints since last year are upheld, his cut is a minimum of $213,565 – a figure that doesn’t account for larger fines issued to repeat noise violators.
Detering declined to comment on how much money he’s earned. In court papers, his lawyer portrays him as a do-gooder stepping up to address “an environmental right guaranteed to all citizens.”
“He’s very concerned about the environment and very concerned about noise pollution having a deleterious impact on people’s health and safety. I think he’s trying to exercise good citizenship,” Detering’s attorney Jack Lester said.
Members of the City Council see it differently. They say noise vigilantes like Detering are taking advantage of the law and a lack of government personnel to properly investigate noise violations. Detering and another noise vigilante, Eric Eisenberg, are responsible for 90% of the roughly 6,000 citizen noise complaints filed since October, according to Licata. Eisenberg declined to comment.
Queens Councilmember James Gennaro is sponsoring a bill that would reduce noise complainants’ payouts to just $5 or $10. It would also cap the fines for the backlog of thousands of pending violations to $50 for each business, spelling an end to Detering’s gravy train.
Gennaro said the bill will stop a few noise vigilantes from making “hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.”
“Businesses are being fleeced by profiteers who have no interest whatsoever other than lining their own pockets with ill-gotten gains,” Gennaro said. “I think it’s the obligation of the city to have a working, functional noise code and this was a problem that was exploited and we have to fix it.”
The Council will vote on Gennaro’s bill on Wednesday.
Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told Gothamist that reform of the law would protect restaurants that are still recovering from the pandemic.
“[The businesses] are running on very thin margins,” Bookman said. “They don’t have thousands of extra dollars to pay for nonsense fines nor do they have the time to go down and spend half a day at a hearing, or hire an attorney – such as ourselves – to fight these violations. These are costs that businesses simply don’t have.”
Detering, unsurprisingly, has responded with a lawsuit against the city, claiming it’s already taking steps to “undermine” the citizen noise complaint program.
The suit describes Detering as an environmental activist “deeply concerned about the damage caused by both noise pollution and air pollution to his health and that of his community.” His professed concern isn’t unfounded; the city health department found in a 2012 study that the average levels of noise at many outdoor locations in the five boroughs exceed federal guidelines to protect public health.
The suit details the “extensive time and money” Detering dedicates to his craft, including out-of-pocket costs for his video recorder (which he said cost $70), bicycle repairs and a printer for the reams of paperwork resulting from his complaints. Detering says he spends most of his Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays on the phone waiting for hearings on his complaints to start.
His lawsuit argues that if the citizen noise complaint program is reformed, in any way, the result will be “a cacophony of noise rendering our congested city a stressful and health-impairing place to live.”
The city has not filed a response in the case. Law Department spokesperson Nicholas Paolucci said the suit will be reviewed.
Back in Times Square, Detering called reform of the law “absurd” and said it was an example of the city bowing to business interests.
“The city wants to protect all this and turn everything into a noisy party zone where restaurants can make a lot of money,” he said, gesturing toward the chaos at the Crossroads of the World.
“New Yorkers are not here – and our visitors are not here – to serve the businesses. Get that in your head.”