A cadre of civilian “bounty hunters” have raked in thousands of dollars by issuing summonses to bars and restaurants for violating the city’s ambiguous noise pollution regulations.
The self-appointed “noise police” can make between 25% and 50% of the fines levied against businesses that are accused of using outdoor sound systems to attract patrons.
The most prolific citizen ticket writer, Queens resident Dietmar Detering, has issued 500 noise complaints totaling more than $600,000, according to an investigation by NBC 4 New York.
Detering told the local news outlet that he makes his living issuing these complaints, describing himself as an advocate for New Yorkers who are fed up with “noise pollution.”
He would not reveal his reported windfall from the complaints.
The snowballing violations have sparked outrage among bar owners who have been blind-sided by notices from the Department of Environmental Protection, one of the city agencies charged with handling noise complaints.
Mario Arcari, owner of Mercury Bar in Hell’s Kitchen, told The Post he faces more than $33,000 in fines stemming from seven summonses from civilian enforcer Eric Eisenberg, according to the complaints reviewed by The Post.
Eisenberg claimed a television in an outside seating area of the tavern was blaring sound in the summonses submitted to the DEP last August and September, the complaints said.
But Arcari said he didn’t learn about the violations until May, when the agency sent him one notice after another along with a schedule of hearings if he chooses to fight the fines.
“I was shocked,” Arcari told The Post. “We were never notified about the first complaint and this guy kept coming back day after day and made these complaints without speaking to us about it.”
Eisenberg said he didn’t approach Arcari about the loud TV because he’s often rebuffed by businesses when he complains.
“I expected that DEP would quickly reach out to the business to explain the noise laws,” Eisenberg told The Post.
Eisenberg stands to make as much as $16,000 if Arcari fails to show up for the hearing or $3,960 if the whistleblower is able to prove his case, according to Arcari’s attorney Max Bookman.
DEP also issued Mercury Bar a separate noise violation based on a complaint from Eisenberg, who would only receive 25% of that summons since it was issued directly by DEP.
The obscure ordinance that deputizes civilians has caused legal confusion over its language, which states businesses are prohibited from playing amplified music “for advertising purposes or to attract attention.”
Bookman represents a dozen bars and restaurants that have been fined this year, including The Ragtrader and The Parlour Room, both on W. 36th St. The latter establishment received three noise summonses from individuals earlier this year.
“The summonses cited a speaker outdoors, but we don’t have a sound system outside,” owner Mark Fox said. “This is music coming through the windows.”
When the third summons arrived earlier this year, Fox said “I was so confused and thought maybe there was an ordinance change that I wasn’t aware of.”
Fox was able to secure a reduced settlement for the fines — which were $1,750 each — but said he would not do so in the future.
“We are small business owners who have been targeted by private citizens for their own betterment,” Fox said. “I will fight these fines vigorously.”
The outcry from businesses has caught the attention of public officials, including DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala, who decried ‘bounty hunters’ for “abusing the system to terrorize local businesses for personal profit under the pretense of protecting the environment,” according to WNBC, which first reported on the issue.
“Unfortunately one of the patterns we have seen is the citizen enforcers seem to go where it is easiest to make the money,” Aggarwala told the outlet. “If they are playing gotcha, if they are looking to rack up multiple violations for example without letting the business owner know about the first one – that is not legitimate enforcement activity. What that is, actually is bounty hunting.”
City Council member James Gennaro (D-Queens) said he is planning to introduce legislation to reform the ordinance.
“Certainly the scenario now where people are profiting needs to go away,” Gennaro told The Post.
Even organizations that have historically advocated for New York City to strengthen its noise code are on the side of mom-and-pop businesses that are being pummeled by these complaints.
The Natural Resources Defense Council urged the City Council in a June 27 letter that The Post obtained to draft legislation that would protect restaurants and bars from “over-zealous enforcement simply for having otherwise lawful music playing in their establishments,” director Eric Goldstein wrote.
Eisenberg, however, blamed the lack of enforcement by the DEP and NYPD for the rise in citizen summonses.
“Thanks to the city’s failure, commercial noise became ever-present, eviscerating peace and quiet for all New Yorkers,” he said.