City Council to consider tightening nuisance laws

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July 6, 2009

10:07 PM

The Williamsburg City Council will discuss tightening the city’s nuisance ordinance this Thursday in what is the first change brought about from the three-person focus group.

The focus group was formed earlier this year to examine and propose possible changes to the three-person rule, which bars more than three unrelated people from living in a house together.

Although it did not reach a consensus, the focus group still made several recommendations to the city council last month. The council then directed city staff to determine what possible steps can be taken regarding the rule.

Thursday the council will hear city staff’s proposal amending the city code on nuisances. The proposed amendments would broaden liability for public nuisance violations beyond occupants to include property owners and their agents, as well as require property owners to remove graffiti within 15 days.

At its Monday afternoon work session, the council was briefed on legal issues pertaining to property maintenance, nuisance and zoning code enforcement. The briefing was similar to one given to the focus group in February to provide background and framework for the council’s future action.

Deputy City Attorney Christina Shelton told the council that it is difficult for the city to prosecute three-person rule violators because evidence-gathering is difficult. The city cannot legally keep a registry of renters, and so Shelton said the city must rely on admission from residents and cars parked outside a home to determine if a house is possibly in violation.

The city once used a directory published and released by the College of William and Mary to determine which students were in violation of the rule. After that incident several years ago, the College made reporting a student’s address optional, effectively cutting off the directory as a resource for the city.

“It seems as though the problem with enforcement is, we’re really hamstrung,” council member Bobby Braxton said.

“We’re not with the tools, but we are with the evidence,” Shelton replied.

Shelton said the city prefers civil suits over criminal trials, noting that the burden of proof is lessened in civil court.

The council members seemed most concerned with enforcing any residency rules. City Attorney Joe Phillips noted that there is little the city can do to increase enforceability of occupancy rules short of spending money to hire more police or a special investigator. City staff was unable to offer any solutions to enforceability issues; Shelton responded with a sharp no when Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler asked her if any other city in Virginia had successfully dealt with the issue.

The council also reviewed the detailed points from the focus group’s draft proposal, which focused on a list of requirements from the city for possible special exceptions to the three-person rule.

After hearing about a proposed requirement that the city keep a list of all renters living more than three to a house, council member Judy Knudson asked whether the city can keep a list of all renters, regardless of the number of occupants. Deputy Planning Director Carolyn Murphy explained that the current law does not allow for the city to keep a list of all renters, but that the renting law could be amended as such.

Braxton asked about a proposed 24-hour notice for inspections of 3-person rule exception properties, arguing that the full day’s notice would give extra, illegal renters time to clear out the house. Murphy responded that the city must give reasonable notice, which the focus group set at 24 hours. Braxton continued to question the notice, but Freiling argued against spot inspections.

“To what degree is it reasonable for the jurisdiction to have access to someone’s private living space in their home?” Freiling said. “At some point you have to say you can only be so intrusive in people’s lives.”

The council will consider the proposed nuisance ordinance changes at its meeting Thursday afternoon.

In August, city staff will present a new noise ordinance. The Virginia Supreme Court recently struck down Virginia Beach’s noise law, saying that the cutoff guideline, a level that would annoy a “reasonable person,” was too vague. Williamsburg also has a “reasonable person” guideline and so must specify a decibel level limit.

City staff will also identify possible off-campus sites that would require modifying current zoning laws and update the council on the College’s progress toward housing more students on campus.

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