City grants company permission to violate its noise law
Those who violate the Cambridge noise ordinance face a $300-a-day fine. Despite four years of complaints from neighbors, Idenix, a pharmaceutical company on Hampshire Street, has never paid one, say neighbors and an environmental activist City Council candidate.
Instead, for the past three years the city has granted the company annual exemptions from the noise ordinance.
Peter Lindquist, a self-described “cranky neighbor,” has expressed concern about the noise publicly since 2007. Asked at a License Commission hearing in June about the psychological result of the noise — now his annual opportunity to complain — he said, “It is wearing us all down, believe me, it is wearing us all down.”
“This whole process has worn us all down, but living with this noise on a daily, nightly basis,” he said, leaving the sentence unfinished before referring to the other side in the hearing. “It is fine for these people; they get paid to come in here and present a case and all that. I have to go home and sleep there in it and so do my neighbors, and that is where the problem is. These people don’t live in the neighborhood; they get paid to tell you something.”
At that hearing, his wife, Linda, added, “Of course, I am saddened that the threat of a lawsuit caused a special variance to be given to Idenix,” referring to the company contesting the city’s right to enforce its ordinance in a lawsuit.
After the Lindquists urged the commission not to extend Idenix’s request for a variance from the noise ordinance, in August the company got its third, one-year variance.
The city’s enforcement issues
Minka vanBeuzekom, a candidate for City Council who is co-leader of the Area IV Neighborhood Coalition, said in an interview she thought the ongoing variances are “a wonderful example of the city backing down from solving a problem that will only get worse as development continues.”
She said she does not oppose development; she just wants the existing ordinances to be followed. “Proper siting, maintenance and timely remediation from Idenix could have avoided much of the aggravation and expense,” she said.
The city’s shortcomings in inspections and zoning enforcement were brought up this summer in terms of ensuring developers follow the rules. Among four citizen petitions discusses in a council Ordinance Committee meeting was one that would give city inspectors the power to issue fines — an idea chairman Sam Seidel recently said had support among city officials. City food inspectors also lack the power to fine offending businesses, and until a Cambridge Day article alerting it to the problem, the city’s Inspectional Services Department has been checking public schools for health code violations only half as frequently as state law requires, despite finding violations.
Idenix, too, went unfined until its first exemption from the noise ordinance took effect.
Idenix officials appearing before the License Commission last summer detailed the numerous steps they have taken to try to keep noise below the desired level of 55 decibels. That included testing individual air-conditioning units after testimony alleged they were unequally noisy.
Company officials discussing the units at a hearing said some are owned by MetLife, the company that owns the Idenix building, at 60 Hampshire, suggesting they are not controlled directly by Idenix.
Roots of the case
Beneath that sort of parsing at hearings lies tension with a history. The case has its roots in deed restrictions negotiated for 131 Harvard St., vanBeuzekom said. Concessions for that site to Neighbors for a Better Community led to a requirement that the buildings involved be no higher than one story. The same held true for 60 Hampshire — previously the site of Variagenics, whose bioinformatics business made it a quieter presence in the dense residential neighborhood surrounding it.
In an interview, Lindquist said that after they bought their home in 2001, all was peaceful until 2005, when Idenix became the building’s occupant. Its biotech business, involving chemical deliveries and glassware for labs, was noisier.
As its work ramped up, the company installed and operated ventilation equipment and began storing more equipment on its roof, which was bedroom-level with some neighbors.
“There did not appear to be a long-term plan about how to deal with the noise,” vanBeuzekom said.
The company denied the problem on its roof, but archived Google maps showed what the company was storing there at different points, she said.
The ongoing noise, which she described as “vibrational,” became too much for the neighborhood.
Most involved publicly in the past four years has been Lindquist, who worked with the License Commission on the issue. Earlier, he had gone directly to Idenix, but came away unsatisfied.
Using its existing noise ordinance, the city pressured Idenix, but it didn’t work. Instead, Idenix wanted a variance to the ordinance, to which neighbors objected, and three years ago Idenix sued, saying the ordinance was not enforceable. The company’s variances to the ordinance have become an annual ritual.
Elizabeth Lint, of the License Commission, did not return a call left Wednesday asking about the status of the lawsuit and what aspects of the law are “not enforceable.” Messages left in various ways over the course of several days with the Law Department have also gone unanswered. A message left with Idenix on Thursday has also not been returned.
One wrinkle to the pattern took place at the hearing in August when Commissioner Gerard Mahoney, an assistant deputy fire chief, suggested there not be time limit on the most recent variance. The idea was outvoted.
What has been one neighborhood’s fight for what it sees as reasonable quiet may become more common, vanBeuzekom said. She sees this issue springing up more as developers continue to introduce or expand projects in East Cambridge.
VanBeuzekom said if the deed restriction were limited to two or three stories, placing the noise higher, neighbors might not have been disturbed as much.
All of this could have been avoided, Lindquist said in the interview, if Idenix would have listened to its neighbors and used the money it has spent on the lawsuit to take some simple steps at the beginning to mitigate noise.
As for the city ordinance, he said: “There’s no follow-through in this city … who’s accountable?”