City Council to continue 3-person rule discussions

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June 11, 2009

11:16 PM

The Williamsburg City Council decided yesterday not to forward the final report from the Focus Group on Rental Properties Near the College to the Planning Commission, instead directing city staff to work on solidifying the recommendations and determining how to proceed.

The focus group did not come to a consensus for a solution to the infamous three-person rule, which bars more than three unrelated people from living in a house together.

Many students at the College of William and Mary contend that the ordinance is discriminatory while long-term residents argue many students are irresponsible neighbors.

The focus group was convened by the city council in February to explore options for changing the rule. It met 11 times and consisted of students, homeowners, landlords, city staff and representatives from the College.

The final report lists dozens of recommendations that the group was able to come to a consensus on.

The College is planning on building new dorms on campus, which would alleviate some of the demand for off-campus housing. The College was also willing to create a brochure for students living off-campus about being a good neighbor. And homeowners were willing to increase the number of unrelated people living in a house if enforcement was increased.

The other points of agreement are listed in the final report.

More important to future discussions on the topic is the points of contention between constituencies.

According to the report, the College would not create an office for off-campus students to monitor violations of the occupancy rules. Furthermore, homeowners were concerned with parking availability.

Enforcement of any rule, however, was the main issue preventing agreement. Homeowners would not support changing the rule unless the College was involved in enforcement, but the College was not willing to interfere in the lives of students living off-campus.

Mayor Jeanne Zeidler was optimistic about future discussion.

“I don’t think we should table this issue,” she said. “Even though consensus wasn’t reached on everything, there are a lot of good ideas in here on how to improve the situation.”

Vice Mayor Clyde Haulman noted that many students feel the three-person rule discriminates against them, but echoed Zeidler.

“I hope over the next months and years that we’ll be able to build on this and come to something that’s workable for all constituencies in the community,” he said. “This is a starting point. This is not the ending point, this is the starting point. And I think everybody needs to keep that in mind.”

The council decided not to forward the focus group report to the Planning Commission. Instead, they directed City Manager Jack Tuttle and the city staff to go over the report’s recommendations and “put more meat on them,” according to Zeidler.

The city staff’s ultimate goal should be a list of actions the council could take, Zeidler said.

Public comments reflected relief among many residents that the focus group failed to reach a consensus. Many residents commented that more discussion is needed before any decisions are made.

“We’re against pursuing the three-person rule as a solution to what appears to be a larger issue in the community,” Matoaka Ct. resident Bill Hamilton said. “For our street in particular, we’re very concerned about the recent change in the character of our street and how the three-person rule change could impact this.”

Hamilton commented that his street was slowly moving toward a majority of renters, which he hailed as a downfall for long-term residents.

“We would be concerned, going forward, with being able to attract anything other than college students if the direction our street’s taken keeps going the way it is,” he said. “You drive down the street, you see a house, it looks a little iffy, lot of cars parked around it, you start to wonder what’s going on there.”

Bill Dell, a homeowner and member of the focus group, expressed his “profound disappointment” that the focus group was unable to agree on a solution. However, he noted that the major disconnect between the parties was intractable.

“Residents won’t budge without enforcement. The College won’t provide consequence for the actions of their students off campus, and the students won’t even agree to provide where they actually reside in the community,” he said. “Further pursuit without meaningful enforcement concessions from the College and students will unfortunately remain, I believe, futile.”

Dell then passed around photos of 114 Griffin St., taken last month, depicting illegally parked cars and a general state of damage and disrepair — a state, he says, that follows student renters and hurts neighborhoods.

Dell ultimately recommended the city council table the issue, which Zeidler later disagreed with.

Resident Ruth Griffioen also spoke, saying she is plagued by “unrelenting noise” on weekends and that students will “go to great lengths to conceal how many people are in a house.”

“It is consistently true in my experience that the more students live in a house, the more disturbances the household is likely to cause,” she said. “Many of us feel as though we have been forced into the role of unwilling, unpaid RAs in increasingly unruly neighborhoods.”

Griffioen also said programs teaching students living off-campus how to be good neighbors would be futile because of the students’ transient living situation.

“Any progress that we do manage to make in helping our student neighbors learn how to live peacefully in their communities, any of those efforts have to restart every fall from scratch as last year’s students move out and the new crop moves in,” she said. “Frankly, many of us are just getting really, really tired.”

Griffioen warned that the continued presence of students off-campus would drive away long-term homeowners and devalue property near the College.

One student present at the meeting, Josh Karp ’11, said that Williamsburg is not yet ready for changes to the three-person rule.

“I agree, oddly enough, with Bill Dell,” he said. “Unless students, city folks and College administrators can reach a strong consensus, any legislation is just a halfway measure.”

City Council member Paul Freiling ’83 agreed.

“I think what came out of the focus group was terribly useful,” he said. “Now our responsibility is to keep that discussion going in a productive and meaningful way.”

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