Property owners now liable for nuisance violations

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July 9, 2009

9:33 PM

The Williamsburg City Council voted 4-0 Thursday to extend the city’s nuisance laws in what is the first step toward possibly changing the city’s three-person rule, which bars more than three unrelated people from living in a house together.

Vice Mayor Clyde Haulman, an economics professor at the College of William and Mary, was out of town and missed the vote.

The new nuisance law extends liability for violations beyond occupants to include property owners and their agents and representatives. It also requires property owners to remove graffiti within 15 days and expands the definition of public nuisance.

Furthermore, punishment for violators is upped from a class three misdemeanor to a class one misdemeanor.

“That doesn’t mean that the court is bound to mete out class one punishment,” City Attorney Joe Phillips said, “but it can go that high, i.e. a $1,500 fine and a year in jail.”

The four present members of the council voted for the new ordinance with little discussion.

City staff will present a new noise ordinance to council next month. The city had to change the noise law after the Virginia Supreme Court struck down Virginia Beach’s similar noise law, disturbing to a “reasonable person,” as too vague.

Since the April court ruling, Virginia Beach has restricted noise in neighborhoods to 55 decibels — about as loud as a dishwasher and five decibels softer than normal conversation — outside a house after 10 p.m.

Two people spoke to the council about the three-person rule.

Resident Flora Adams spoke against allowing more renters to share a house.

“I’m very much opposed to increasing the limit on the number of unrelated people in a home for one reason and one reason only,” Adams said. “I’m worried that our established residential neighborhoods will become neighborhoods of investment properties rather than owner-occupied properties.”

She argued that rental houses have little incentive to keep up properties, and so owners allow them to decay and bring down housing values in the neighborhood. Adams said she has been greatly affected by renters.

“For the first time since moving to Williamsburg nine years ago, I have begun thinking about where I might like to move to,” she said.

Jeff Dailey ’10, policy director for the political action committee Students for a Better Williamsburg, said the council has spent too much time discussing the three-person rule.

“When there’s discussion about rental properties and damaging neighborhoods, let’s be frank, we’re talking about students and upkeep. When there’s complaints about garbage in front yards, we’re talking about Solo cups and beer cans. Say we’re talking about the city’s nuisance ordinance. What we’re really talking about is student parties,” he said. “But when students are being discussed in this context, I ask that you keep in mind the students responsible for these problems represent an insignificant minority of the students at the College overall.”

Dailey went on to tell the council that good neighbors cannot be legislated, to let students rent with “reasonable restrictions” and to properly punish violators.

“We’re adults,” he said. “Treat us so.”

Mayor Jeanne Zeidler M.A. ’76 responded to Dailey.

“When we talk about nuisance ordinances, these are not directed at students. There are certainly other people living in these communities who sometimes violate nuisance ordinances,” she said. “This is not directed at one group of people, this is a city-wide ordinance that is something we feel is necessary to continue to protect the neighborhoods in this community and make it a good place to live.”

The city council will likely address a new noise ordinance next month.

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