SEABROOK – Despite lengthy debate and criticism, the College Park City Council passed a revision of a nuisance ordinance during their Sept. 24 meeting, which will ban “unruly social gatherings.”
The amendment sought to more clearly define nuisances and create a new section that introduces “unruly social gatherings,” defined as any gathering of eight or more people that serves alcohol to anyone underage, or more broadly as any behavior that disturbs the peace. Violators on private property would be subject to a $500 fine and, after a second violation, fines of $1,000 to the tenant and $500 to the landowner.
The council made four amendments to the ordinance during the hearing. Originally considering four or more people to make a gathering, the passed measure raised the minimum to eight. The ordinance also sought to revoke the renter’s license of property managers after three violations by the same tenant in a 24-month period.
Bob Ryan, the city’s director of public services, clarified during the session that the amendments do not prohibit parties so long as those parties do not meet any nuisances already defined as criminal acts, such as public defecation or obstructing public streets. The ordinance, rather, includes these criminal acts in civil law as municipal infractions.
“I think there’s some misunderstanding of what these amendments do,” said Ryan. “You can have as many guests as you want, as long as they’re abiding by the code.”
Aaron Springer, a resident motivated to work on noise issues in the city after a stabbing incident behind his house killed a boy in 2002, stood in favor of the revisions, reflecting on the city’s history of public drunkenness and cars hitting pedestrians.
“I can appreciate the sort of perspective now that we’ve sort of dug ourselves out of this situation where we were at rock bottom,” said Springer. “We haven’t dug ourselves out of that hole. We’re getting there.”
The revision follows several months of debate and policy toward noise and nuisance in the city. Along with the nuisances ordinance, councilmembers voted unanimously for an extension of nighttime noise limitations, set at 55 decibels, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Earlier in July, the city approved a request to send a letter to the Government Accountability Office for its consideration to include College Park in a study of helicopter noises’ effect on communities in the Washington metropolitan area.
The nuisance’s ordinance, however, was uniquely met with significant pushback from residents. Nearly 60 people spoke on the record against it during the meeting, especially when it came to the ordinance’s impact on the University of Maryland students living in the city. Often, they came one after another to the podium, stating their name, their residency and that they opposed the ordinance, before thanking the council and sitting back down.
Andrew Greinetz, a university student and College Park resident, found the proposal “redundant” given that violations under the ordinance would overwhelmingly impact university students.
According to Greinetz, who serves on the University Student Judiciary, a student governance organization, the university’s office of student conduct already disciplines students who commit the acts outlined as nuisances in the revised ordinance. To him, further punishment by the city would be “unnecessary and cruel.”
“On why I think it’s cruel, I think the penalties laid out are simply not proportional to what’s happening,” he said, turning his concerns toward the fines laid out in the ordinance. “College students don’t have deep pockets.”
Tom Gray, a property owner, called the penalties “a Draconian consequence” for punishing property owners for behaviors they cannot control.
Robert Davis, a property owner that manages campus and city properties, including the university’s fraternities, found the nuisances to be completely “unenforceable.”
“I can control my speed on the highway by setting my cruise control,” Davis said. “I cannot control the behavior of another adult.”
To address concerns regarding these penalties, District 3 Councilmember John Rigg put forth the amendments to the ordinance that would limit punishments against the owner to a $500 fine. The amendments were each passed 5-3.
Regardless, the wording of the ordinance remained unsatisfying to residents at the hearing. Many believed that the ordinance targeted students directly, as they make up the majority of noise complaints in the city. Some argued that the broad language of the ordinance offered the police enormous discretion with what they can perceive as an unruly gathering, while also doing little to protect property owners.
Students, overall, asked to be heard. Tommy Sheppard, a student and resident, held that the university students were the “economic backbone” of the College Park community.
“It is vital that the council listens to and value what students have to say,” Sheppard. “Students deserve to have their voices heard…Tonight, those voices were heard loud and clear.”
Rigg spoke out to the members of the community at the hearing, seeing it a different way.
“This is not student versus non-student, this is not a town versus town issue,” Rigg said. “What this is about is neighborliness.”
The vote was pushed back over and over to make room for additional public comments, new amendments and deliberation amongst councilmembers. In the end, the ordinance passed in a unanimous decision and will go into effect on Oct. 15.