Fall Real Estate 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000 & Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

Living next to construction that never ends Living next to construction that never ends (September 22, 2000)

It takes a keen ear to tell the difference between a pneumatic air gun and your basic high-powered stapler.

It's a talent that Dave McBay has developed over the past 15 months.

Since last June McBay has endured the gamut of construction noise--the hammering of nails, the whine of high-speed sanders, the thunk-thunk-thunk of jackhammers, and the shouts of drywallers calling across the construction site to electricians.

"I don't know how much longer I can take it," said McBay, who lives in a small cottage in Old Palo Alto. "I used to get angry. I still do from time to time. But for the most part, it's just become part of my life. It's terrible."

The source of McBay's frustration is just over his back fence where a newly arrived neighbor is building an enormous homestead: a 6,500-square-foot mansion that fronts on Kingsley Street and a 1,400-square-foot guest house in the rear. Construction is expected to continue for at least the next two years.

McBay is one of the victims of Palo Alto's building boom. He just happens to have the misfortune of living next to a homeowner with the means and the time to erect a personal fortress.

McBays says he could almost tolerate the noise if it was limited to Monday through Friday. What galls him, however, is that construction crews are allowed to work seven days a week in Palo Alto. The hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. The crews working over his back fence take full advantage of the city's liberal work schedules.

"It's never ending for me," says McBay, a tree doctor who owns his own trimming service. "Plus, the crews don't care about the laws. They start work whenever they get here. This morning (a Sunday), they started in at 7:45. I had to open my window and yell at the top of my lungs, 'You can't start until 10!'"

McBay paused a moment, then said, "Right now. Do you hear it? They've got the pneumatic sanders going. I literally can't remember the last day I've had that's been quiet."

McBay says the noise is so bad and so constant that when he's outside he has to wear ear plugs, and when he's inside he has to turn his stereo way up.

Based on his months of suffering, McBay says he has three recommendations that he hopes the city will take to reign in construction work.

- Limit professional construction work to Monday through Friday.

- Require homeowners to complete construction in a given amount of time. McBay says there's no end in sight to the project going on next door.

- Do away with the $100 fines the city occasionally imposes on property owners whose construction crews violate work schedules. Instead, McBay recommends prohibiting them from working that day or part of the day.

"People spending $3 million or $4 million to build a house don't care about a $100 fine. They care about finishing the thing." A Palo Alto resident on and off since 1975, McBay said he's become discouraged at all the new construction in his neighborhood.

"It makes life miserable," he said. "Besides, it seems to me it's not about having a house to live in. It's about having a trophy home."

--Marc Igler