By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The installation of a new heating and air conditioning system at Watchung School has generated complaints from residents on nearby Frederick Street.

Neighbors have approached school and town officials about after-hours construction, which neighbors said went until midnight some nights, during the installation that began in March.

The HVAC unit is being installed for the auditorium at Watchung, which is used as a pick-up point for students at the end of the school day, in addition to special events. Watchung parents reported that the auditorium becomes uncomfortably hot during warm weather, to the extent that children have experienced heat exhaustion.

David Frey, whose parents live on Frederick Street, a short distance away from the school, told the council at its recent meeting, that the construction work has been continuing until midnight for about a month. “And we were never informed this was happening.”

But for Frederick Street resident Dan Keppel, whose property abuts the school, the main concern is the noise that will be generated while the HVAC unit are in operation. The units are also close to a part of the schoolyard that is used as a play area and outdoor classroom, he said. Keppel did his own research, including consulting an acoustical engineer.

The average sound level of the unit is expected to be 85 decibels, according to a letter sent to Keppel from district architects Parette Somjen. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes 85 decibels as in between the sound of a freight train passing 100 feet away and the sound of a boiler room. But Keppel said that 85 decibels is equivalent to the sound of a gas leaf blower in operation.

Keppel said that he had reached out to the Board of Education, and was told that there was no way at that point to change the units.

The unit would also be running for several hours later in the day in the case of evening events. “If this thing is going to make a lot of noise, it’s going to reverberate,” said Frey, adding that Frederick Street is a quiet neighborhood with modest-sized houses. The presence and noise of the HVAC, he said, would make the neighborhood less desirable.

“The Montclair Township Chapter 217 Noise legislation does not specify a minimum sound level that must be adhered to. [Parette Somjen Architects] submitted a copy of the drawings and specifications to the planning board for courtesy review which was delivered on May 14, 2018. There were no comments [on the sound] received as part of this review,” states the letter from district architects Parette Somjen.

In addition, Frey said the HVAC unit is unsightly, and suggested the BOE erect a wooden fence around the unit to shield it from view.

“In regards to the one complaint, I know MPS adhered to all construction protocols. And, the requisite paperwork was filed with the appropriate township office,” Superintendent Kendra Johnson said when asked about the reports of crews working late into the night. She said she was aware of one complaint from a Watchung neighbor.

Under the township noise ordinances, construction may only be carried out between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. However, exceptions may be made for not-for-profit construction work on a property, or for construction work that has to be deemed of “urgent necessity.”

Township attorney Ira Karasick said that the schools are not regulated directly by the township, but by the state, so it was likely that the township was limited in what it could require the schools to do as it pertains to local noise ordinances.

However, DOE spokesperson Mike Yaple said he was not aware of any statute or code that would exempt a school district from following local noise ordinances.

The after-hours construction has tapered off recently, Frey said, but there was a period of time when crews were going in and out of the school and slamming their truck doors close to midnight.

The Code Enforcement Office received a complaint about after-hours construction on April 24, code official Mike Reed said. Inspectors arrived at the school at 7 p.m. and found that there was no construction going on at the time. The office would continue to monitor the situation, he said.

Mayor Robert Jackson said that he had been on an email chain between Keppel and the school administration, and that Johnson’s position was that the BOE had done everything it was supposed to do. But he said he would be reaching out to the BOE the next day.