July 1, 2015
Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet
For immediate release
Chapel Hill: Fort Collins, Colorado has won this month’s Noisy Dozen award from Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet for doing nothing to stop constant dog barking. Fort Collins’ “anything goes” attitude toward dog barking led to the medical destruction of a disabled man.
Neil Brooks has been medically disabled since 2004. He was born with a numerous eye problems, as well as primary immune dysfunction. For over six years, one of his eye problems was treated with eye drops which–he found out later–burned his corneas, leaving him in chronic pain. He had to leave his career as a director and vice president of several different corporations. He now has to wear fluid-filled, custom-made contact lenses while he is awake.
In October 2008, Brooks and his wife moved to Fort Collins. They “fell in love with the lifestyle which defines Fort Collins: rather small-town hospitality and pace with most of the city amenities, favorable weather, a host of outdoor options, and relatively affordable housing.”
In February 2009, Brooks and his wife moved into their new house. “Almost immediately,” he stated, “I realized that the neighbors had two young dogs who barked. And barked a lot. And barked exceptionally loudly.” The dogs barked “early in the morning and late at night. On most days, they barked hours on end, while their owners were away.”
The barking “echoed throughout my house, no matter how many doors and windows were closed or what kind of earplugs or background noise I used to minimize the noise. The houses were mere feet away. The barking dogs were about an arm’s length from the entire side of my house.”
After a couple of months of this, Brooks “finally wrote a kindly-worded note to the neighbors, explaining my medical circumstances and the toll the constant dog barking was taking on my health. I invited the dog owners to come to our house, to meet, chat, and talk about the barking issue.”
Brooks reports that “for a week or so, things seemed to get better. I sent a fruit basket to express my thanks.”
However, the respite from the constant dog barking did not last. Once again, Brooks sent his neighbors a kindly-worded note, offering to meet and chat over a glass of wine or dinner.
This time, though, the neighbors’ response “wasn’t particularly cordial. They said that ‘other dogs bark, too,’ despite the fact that no other dogs were barking mere feet from my bedroom, waking me up, or preventing me from sleeping in any room of my house.”
The dog owners let Brooks know that “it was time for me to leave them alone.”
In response, Brooks contacted the Animal Control office in Fort Collins–which claimed that they needed statements from complainants at two separate addresses. Brooks later found out that this was not Animal Control’s actual policy.
Brooks then asked the Fort Collins Police Department to intervene. They refused: “The only animal noise complaints that they pursued were based on referrals from Animal Control, which had already refused. Apparently, this is a pretty common catch-22 in many cities. I was stuck.”
Because of the constant dog barking, Brooks’ health was deteriorating: “I was chronically exhausted and my vision was getting worse. I was a medical wreck.”
Brooks then contacted the property manager of the homeowner’s association, letting them know that the constant dog barking had been going on for eight months. He noted that “all civil, friendly, and reasonable efforts to resolve it, between neighbors, had failed.”
The property manager’s response was to provide the contact information for the Vice president of the HOA’s board of directors.
Brooks then wrote to the HOA vice president, who responded that the HOA wasn’t going to do anything to resolve the issue, “since there are so many folks with dogs” and “we all know that our own dogs are prone to bark at times, and do not wish to be hypocrites.” Later, the HOA vice president sent “a shocking list of reasons why he didn’t like me, personally, and explaining how close his friendship was with the dog-owning neighbors. It was just a scathing and vicious personal attack.”
Brooks also pursued the option of mediation. The city mediator scheduled a meeting and then cancelled it–without telling Brooks.
Brooks was running out of options, as he was too sick to consider moving. He consulted an attorney, asking her to convince the neighbors to curb the constant dog barking. The neighbors refused, eventually threatening to sue Brooks for “harassment.”
By this point, “nothing was working. The medical bills were piling up. My health was just crumbling.” By the spring of 2010, Brooks began to experience insomnia.
Brooks decided to file lawsuits against his neighbors for private nuisance, and to sue the HOA vice president and the homeowners’ association for failure to enforce covenants, breach of duty of care, breach of duty of good faith, and breach of contract.
While pursuing the lawsuit, Brooks discovered that “the dog owners had been in lengthy correspondence with the city mediator (who never returned my phone calls). The mediator was counseling the dog owners on how they should handle the situation with their annoying neighbor. To the mediator, the dog owners, and the neighborhood, I was the annoying, dog-hating neighbor.” The city mediator never got heard Brooks’ side of the story. Indeed, Brooks later discovered that “the mediator already had a relationship with the dog owners.”
The mediator soon left the city of Fort Collins. Her department said that there was no file on Brooks’ case. “Apparently,” Brooks stated, “the mediator had destroyed it before departing.”
Brooks reports that “the lawsuit was stressful, painful, and extremely expensive for my wife and me.” The judge dismissed the case against the homeowners’ association, ruling that it was up to them whether to enforce the dog barking covenant. The judge never even considered the other legal causes of action. The judge then awarded the homeowners association $73,000 in legal fees, in addition to the nearly $100,000 in legal fees which Brooks had already spent. The court decision “took my life savings, left me broke, and absolutely stunned.” Despondent, sick, and without hope of a fair trial, Brooks and his wife settled with the dog owners.
Brooks later learned that the judge “is married to the sister of a residential and commercial property builder, who runs homeowners associations, and that the judge’s daughter worked for the judge’s brother-in-law, as a property manager.”
The dog owners who had tormented Brooks finally moved from the neighborhood in the spring of 2011. Brooks felt that he was still under assault from very unfriendly neighbors: “For self-defense, I purchased a handgun, was trained in its use, and openly carried it on my property, while maintaining the yard–perfectly legal in Fort Collins.”
In early June 2011, the HOA vice president–“hiding behind both the bushes and the side of his house, in his own yard, 155 feet away, and using an eight-power telephoto lens–took a handful of pictures of me carrying the gun.” The HOA vice president “snapped a handful of pictures during the roughly five minutes I had dared to exit my house. In all but one picture, I was looking down at the yard that I was maintaining. In one picture, I looked straight ahead for a brief moment.”
Incredibly, the Fort Collins police told the HOA vice president that “he could destroy some of the photographs,” thus creating an inaccurate portrayal of Brooks’ actions.
Even more incredibly, the Fort Collins SWAT team arrived and arrested Brooks: “There were probably 20 law enforcement officials, in full riot gear, all pointing guns at me.” They jailed Brooks and charged him with felony menacing.
Brooks was given a “deferred prosecution,” meaning, essentially, that the case was dropped. A forensic psychologist reported that Brooks “responded appropriately to the emotional stress and turmoil created by the ongoing dispute by seeking out mental health counseling and his process of problem resolution was progressive and appropriate to the circumstances. There was no indication that Mr. Brooks responded impulsively or irrationally during the dispute and, while frustrated by the circumstances and outcome of his case, he never verbalized retaliatory or vengeful thoughts against the opposing parties.”
The court imposed a gag order on Brooks, which expired in September 2014. It also imposed a restraining order, “prohibiting me from having any contact with several of the neighbors. Legally, effectively, I couldn’t go back to my house–even if I wanted to.”
Brooks and his wife separated. Brooks moved away from Fort Collins, into a long-term hotel in the Denver area. They were forced to sell their house.
Attorneys with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development advised Brooks that his civil rights as a disabled person “had been violated by the neighborhood, the homeowners’ association, and the management company when they denied me ‘reasonable accommodation’ to maintain my daily life.”
Brooks concludes: “The cult of residents in that neighborhood and the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, have truly taken everything away from me, a disabled man who had never hurt a soul and who wanted nothing more than to be able to sleep in his own house.”
Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet, commented that “good neighbors respect the right of others to peace and quiet. In Fort Collins, the neighbors, the homeowners’ association, the city mediator, the police department, and the judicial system all failed to protect Neil Brooks’ right to peace and quiet. Constant dog barking is more than an annoyance; it is a threat to one’s health and sanity. What happened to Neil Brooks is a disgrace. Neighborhood associations, homeowners’ associations, police departments, and municipal governments should protect citizens’ rights to peacefully enjoy their own home. The celebration of noise in American culture must stop.”
Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet is a national citizens’ organization opposed to noise pollution. Past “winners” of the Noisy Dozen award include Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Seagoville, Texas and Huntington, New York.