How to file a noise complaint in Chicago

Historical highlights amplify the Windy City’s past: Bawling bulls and hollering, blood-splattered workmen in the Stockyards; Clattering overhead trains; multi-lingual cries, shouts, and music from the tenements, teeming with new arrivals seeking a new life, and, of course, the staccato rat-tat-tat from the machine guns gangsters employed by such Prohibition icons as Al Capone and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Chicagoans absorbed their noises like they absorbed the August heat and the February snowstorms screaming off Lake Michigan. 

That being said, if you feel like all this historical baggage is no justification for excessive noise and want to file a noise complaint in Chicago, you might not like what comes next.

In 2016 the city of Chicago wrote a Noise Ordinance, which you would expect would protect the health and well-being of its citizens by preventing excessively loud noises. Right? Well, no, or at least not quite. As well-intended as the 2016 noise ordinance might be, it is so vague and lacks so much specificity that it is hard to imagine how police and judges could potentially enforce it, even if they really wanted to.

2016 Chicago Noise Ordinance

The original Ordinance, which remains in effect, does not read as if written to turn down the volume on city life nor to protect those citizens who are sensitive to noise.

Let’s check out this Ordinance from the ears and eyes of Kate, who just moved into her Chicago apartment from a small, quiet town in southern Illinois. What noise issues might she encounter? Will the Ordinance help her?

The noisy neighbor #1

At 11 p.m. Friday night, the members of the family next door start shouting at each other amplified only by their lungs. It goes on and on. What can Kate do?

Of course, if she fears that a crime is being or will be committed, she should immediately report it to 911.

Otherwise, does the Ordinance help her?

Not really. The Ordinance excludes explicitly noise from unamplified human voices.

The noisy neighbor #2

The next Friday this neighbor hosts a party. He cranks up his stereo and opens his windows to share this music with Kate and the neighborhood.

Now does the Ordinance help her?

It may. The noise violates the Ordinance because it is amplified music playing for the purpose of entertainment during the statutory quiet hours of 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. louder than the average conversational level within 100 feet of Kate’s property line.

She may be able to report it by dialing the Chicago Call 311 complaint system, even though noisy neighbor complaints are not among the types of complaints listed on the System.

She also could try calling her local police precinct. Depending on their workload, officers may or may not respond. There are more likely to respond to repeat offenses.

The next week Kate talked to the neighbors who promised to quiet down and invite her to their next party.

The bar across the street.

Mid-week, the Handlebar set up a sound system on the sidewalk and began blasting its promotion for its weekend festivities into her apartment which was less than 100 feet away.

Kate called 311. The police promptly responded and the speaker when silent because the police told the owner that repeated violations could cause the suspension of his liquor license.

Construction noise

At 6 a.m. several weeks later, a roofing job began two building away from Kate. She and several neighbors reported it to 311 because they knew that the Ordinance banned construction work between 8 p.m. and 8. a.m. within 600 feet of a residential building.

Work stopped immediately because the contractor knew it faced a fine of $1000-$2500 for the first offense

Work on emergencies and public work projects are exempt.

Earthshaking vibrations   

Fortunately, Kate did not need to seek City assistance for this noisy problem which is strictly controlled.

Excessive animal noise

The woman two buildings away frequently leashed her hound mix to her front porch when she went out. The dog howled long and loud. 

Kate, who was becoming an expert in the Chicago noise laws, located the ordinance which controlled howling dogs. As instructed, she completed the complaint and filed it with the sworn signatures of two other residents with different addresses with Chicago Animal Control.

The owner could be fined $50-250 per offense.

Excessive plane noise

After a few particularly loud flights rattled her picture frames, Kate learned that she could file a complaint with the O’Hare Noise Hotline, the Midway Noise Hotline, or the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) toll-free noise hotline. But Kate had accepted that plane noise, like many other noises, comprised part of the Chicago experience.

Is the Chicago Noise Ordinance Adequate?

Advocates for tougher control over noise pollution probably think that it is not adequate. Certainly, it does not measure up to the control measures in other American cities.

Its shortcomings are real and apparent. For example:

  • It does not measure noise by decibels which is the generally used method for determining what is too loud.
  • It Does not define loudness – the ambient noise level – by using the decibel count which can be measured. Instead, it defines the “ambient noise level” as the sound level at a given location from all sound sources, except for the source under investigation.
  • It uses the term “average conversation level”, which also lacks a measurable baseline, as the measure of acceptable noise.

    In other words, if the noise under investigation does not exceed that location’s ambient noise by more than the average conversation noise, then it does not violate the ordinance. This would be extremely difficult to explain to a police officer or to prove in court.

Is the Call 311 System frequently used to file noise complaints in Chicago?

The short answer is no, not really.

The Chicago Call 311 Service, created in 1999, was hailed by the City as a one-call means to ask questions, file complaints, and gain information about all the City services.

A caller can select from 132 categories ranging from an Abandoned Vehicle Complaint to a Yard Waste Pickup Request. Tellingly, the only listed category with the word “noise” is the Equipment Noise Complaint.

Here are the most requested City services in Chicago:

  • Street Light Out
  • Garbage Cart Black Maintenance/Replacement
  • Rodent Baiting/Rat Complaint
  • Tree Trim
  • Graffiti Removal
  • Pothole in Street
  • Abandoned Vehicle Complaint
  • Tree Debris
  • Alley Light Out
  • Sanitation Code Violation

And the most requested non-emergency Police Reports in Chicago:

  • Theft
  • Motor Vehicle Theft
  • Lost Property
  • Telephone Threats
  • Burglary (Garage)
  • Deceptive Practice
  • Harassment by Telephone
  • Assault

 Source: City’s Call 311 website

The lack of noise complaints may indicate that Chicagoans perhaps prefer to emulate their noisy, rowdy past rather than embrace a quieter way of life.

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I'm W. Dan Bell, a semi-retired attorney living in North Carolina. I am married with two daughters. I enjoy traveling, through-hiking in the UK, writing, spending time with my family, and playing Texas Holdem.

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