Elephants marching? Capshaw digs have folks hearing things

"Enter a place where lifestyle takes on a new dimension... eclectic, exciting, and original. Unique surroundings with distinctive advantages are yours to experience at Riverbend Apartment Homes."

Riverbend, which is located behind Rose's at Pantops, is Charlottesville's newest "luxury" apartment complex. It boasts many attractive features, such as spacious and well-designed floor plans, nine-foot ceilings, oversized windows, and garden tubs. Those are the things that sold James and Amy Vergis on Riverbend when they moved to Charlottesville last July.

"We could not have been happier," James emailed me, describing their early days in the apartment. "However, this feeling of joy was short-lived when our neighbors began to move in." The Vergises soon had people living above, below, and to one side of them, and with each new arrival, the noise level went up.

For example, Vergis wrote, "Our downstairs neighbor's stereo/TV was so loud at one point that the glass on our coffee table would shake out of its frame." That problem, fortunately, was resolved by asking the neighbors to tone it down. Not so fortunately, it was the only instance where volume alone was the problem: The rest of the noise, Vergis claims, has come from the people around them simply walking, talking, and generally inhabiting the space.

At night in the master bedroom, for instance, "When the [next-door] neighbor is on the phone, I can hear the entire conversation as if I were sitting across the table from him. The worst noise comes from our upstairs neighbors. They are not being loud at all... when they just walk, it sounds like a herd of elephants."

I visited the couple on a Monday evening and could indeed hear the people above us walking around, although I would never mistake them for a herd of elephants. After talking with the Vergises, I set out to interview the neighbors.

The couple above them agreed that noise seems to travel freely and said they can not only hear neighbors talking, but even, at times, sneezing. Overall, though, they're happy at Riverbend and plan to stay for their entire three years in law school.

The Vergises' next-door neighbor said he has no problems with noise. The tenant below them didn't answer the door, but his neighbor, whose bedroom wall adjoins the building's breezeway, told me the noise from people going up and down the outside stairs is intrusively loud.

I spoke with property manager Robin Hughes, who believes that the two parties complaining about noise– i.e., the Vergises and the woman on the level below them, who complained about noise from the breezeway– are themselves noisy and, therefore, the problem. Their neighbors, however, deny this.

Next, I talked to Nathan Metzger, who (with partner Coran Capshaw, manager of the Dave Matthews Band) developed the property. Metzger said that sound insulation "is of extreme importance" to him. Like Hughes, he ascribed the complaints to a "fondness for partying" and said, "I really don't think we have a sound problem."

After we spoke, I went back to the complex and interviewed eight more residents from other buildings. Two said they had no problems with noise, but the rest75 percent– said they did. One case was described as extreme, one relatively minor (she could hear people walking above her), and the rest fell in between.

What gives? Are the walls, floors, and ceilings at Riverbend unacceptably flimsy? To get the answer, I met with Jay Schlothauer, Albemarle County building official, and we pored over Riverbend's architectural plans and specifications. Schlothauer gave me a crash course in sound insulation, defining such terms as "sound transmission class" (STC) and "impact insulation class" (IIC).

A wall's construction– e.g., how much space separates the two sides, whether fiberglass batting is used, etc.– and similar factors in the design of the floor/ceiling result in numerical ratings for STC and IIC, respectively.

Riverbend's STC and IIC ratings are in the neighborhood of 50 to 54, which are above the code's minimum requirement of 45. Schlothauer praised Metzger, saying that "He did a lot of stuff that's above the code" and "was very conscientious."

That means, in effect, that no one's to blame– except perhaps for the code itself. That's cold comfort, alas, for James and Amy Vergis.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.