3-person committee hits rough patch

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April 17, 2009

4:43 AM

The City of Williamsburg’s Focus Group on Rental Properties Near the College of William and Mary appears to be at a gridlock in regards to the College’s role in the future enforcement of city zoning violations, leaving one of the group’s student representatives feeling pessimistic about any possible recommendation the group might give to the city.

“I was very optimistic, in fact I was quoted in The Flat Hat as saying I was optimistic at the beginning of this process, which was true,” focus group member Nick Fitzgerald ’09 said. “Based on tonight’s meeting, I can say that that has shifted significantly.”

The focus group, comprised of residents, students and a representative from the College of William and Mary, has been meeting on Thursday nights over the past two months to discuss ways to possibly improve or expand on the city’s three-person ordinance.

Two of the College’s representatives, David Witkowsky ’11 and Michael J. Fox, who serves as the Chief of Staff and Secretary to the Board of Visitors, were not in attendance.

According to city homeowner and focus group member Bill Dell, the College has not done enough to assist the city or the community in enforcing the ordinance.

“The College has done nothing but stonewall us,” Dell said. “I wish Michael [Fox] were here so I could tell it to his face.”

Approximately half the meeting focused on whether or not a proposed College Office of Off-Campus
Housing could legally collect the addresses of students living off-campus.

According to Dell, one of the proposal’s advocates, the creation of an address database would allow the
College to find violations of the three-person ordinance and enforce the College’s Code of Conduct and
Honor Code on students for off-campus violations.

“Why are the students so averse to giving their address?” Dell said. “I think they want to disobey…the laws of the City of Williamsburg.”

According to Fitzgerald, compelling off-campus students to give their addresses to the College would violate federal law.

“You cannot make the students of the College give their addresses, legally,” Fitzgerald said in response. “It’s unreasonable to think that all … students are going to fall in line with that.”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is designed to protect private information held by educational bodies and serves as the crux for Fitzgerald’s argument.

“There’s no point in bringing it up because it’s not going to change,” Fitzgerald said.

The group made headway in the development of a proposal advocated by focus group member Bill Talley that would create a permit process to possibly allow exceptions to the three-person ordinance.

The proposal would allow landlords to apply their properties for a Special Use Permit.

If the property meets certain objective criteria, such as square footage and parking availability, owners would be allowed to rent the house or apartment to four tenants.

SUP applications for five or more tenants would have to meet objective criteria and be publicly approved by the city’s planning commission as well as the Williamsburg City Council.

In this process, subjective criteria, such as the input of neighbors and neighborhood rental ratios, would be taken into consideration.

“I only see this as a short-term solution,” Talley wrote in his proposal. “Long-term solutions rest squarely on the College and the city, and include more on-campus dorms, zoning changes to ‘cluster’ off-campus student housing, better enforcement practices, and initiatives to return neighborhoods to a higher level of owner occupied homes.”

Although the members all seemed to agree on the proposal, enforcement of student violators nevertheless continued to be a sticking point.

“If the College, in my opinion, does not step up to the plate and take responsibility and establish the office and work with the city to ensure that a correct number of people are in the house, the authorized number of people are in the house, then we’re back to square one,” Dell said.

The same case applies if the College is legally prohibited from collecting off-campus addresses, Dell added.

“I see the focus group delivering a proposal to the city,” Fitzgerald said, following the meeting. “But not one that is reflective of the interest of all stakeholders.”

The focus group will meet at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday at 401 Lafayette St.

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