City Council sends 4-person proposal to Planning Commission

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August 10, 2009

10:04 PM

The Williamsburg City Council voted Monday to refer a draft proposal altering the three-person rule to the Planning Commission for further development.

The three-person rule stipulates that no more than three unrelated people can live in a house together in the city.

The draft proposal presented by city staff to the council at its monthly work session stipulates that a house may be rented to four unrelated people if it were to receive a special use permit from the city, which would cover four years. Prerequisites would include site and floor plans submitted to the city prior to occupancy, more than 2,000 square feet of living space, one bedroom per person, one bathroom per two bedrooms and four off- or on-street parking spaces.

The proposal also steps up the ability of the city to enforce occupancy laws. Deputy City Attorney Christina Shelton briefed the council last month on difficulties the city faces in investigating and prosecuting offenders. Because the city cannot keep a registry of renters under current laws, it is forced to rely on admission from residents or the number of cars parked consistently outside a house to discover violators.

Under the new proposal, the city has more explicit abilities to investigate. Before any residents move in, the property owner would be required to provide the city with a copy of the lease for the four occupants, along with their names and phone numbers. In addition, the city would inspect the home annually for recertification, and upon complaint of more than four people living together.

Repeated complaints of excessive noise, litter or other nuisances are cause for the city to revoke the house’s four-person permit. The house then could not be recertified for four occupants for four years.

City staff based the draft off of the final report from a focus group, composed mostly of city residents and students from the College of William and Mary, that met earlier this year.

Council member Bobby Braxton asked why city staff had drafted the proposal to require a special permit rather than direct administrative approval. Planning Director Reed Nester replied that he and the staff felt it was an appropriate step, but that it could be changed by either city council or the planning commission.

Under the permit system, the application would cost $800, Nester told the council, and would require each house to go through a complicated process of public hearings with both the planning commission and city council before receiving final approval, a process that Nester said would likely take three to four months. Administrative approval, alternatively, would likely have a smaller fee or no fee and could take as little as three weeks.

Much of the council’s deliberations focused on enforcement of any occupancy rule, including the current three-person rule.

“I am in favor of moving this forward. I think we need to talk about it. … But I am only willing to go ahead with this if we can figure out a way to do better enforcement in the current places that are rented,” council member Judy Knudson said. “It seems to me this does not solve the fundamental problems the city has. It might help solve the problem the students have but it doesn’t help solve the fundamental problem the city has, which is enforcement of the current regulations and how do we make sure those regulations are being enforced.”

Braxton argued that the four-person permit provides greater enforcement abilities to the city.

“I’m willing to go ahead for the opposite reason because I think that this does supply better enforcement, which we did not have over the three-person rule,” he said.

“But only for the four people,” Knudson countered. “If you want to rent to three, you don’t have to do any of these things.”

Council member Paul Freiling ’83 said that the real problem lies not with the number of people living in a house but in “ancillary” problems such as parking, litter and noise.

“We have, I think, a pretty good parking system in place. We’ve just adopted a new nuisance ordinance, and we are about to look at a completely revised noise ordinance,” he said. “This part of the proposal, I think, should stand on its own merit and not be graded according to another problem we have that this isn’t impacted by.”

The council consensus was to refer the draft proposal to the planning commission for further development and comment.

“We talk about sending this on to the Planning Commission. I don’t think we should use the word ‘move forward’ with it because I think this is another level of scrutiny. This is sending it to the Planning Commission for that next level of scrutiny,” Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler M.A. ’76 said. “This is part of an effort to preserve our neighborhoods and to strengthen our ability to enforce, and part of what the Planning Commission and the conversation should be is whether or not this does it. That is what we are looking for. … That’s what we need to focus on: Will this make the situation better?”

The council voted unanimously to forward the draft proposal to the planning commission. The commission next meets Wednesday, August 19, but may not address the proposal until September.

The lone resident to speak about the proposal was Terence Wehle ’77.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re moving forward quickly on it,” he told the council after it had voted. “We talked about having a conversation and we talked about constituents. Unfortunately the planning commission is not really a conversation, it’s a public hearing and it’s difficult to converse.”

The council also reviewed outreach activities between the city and the College, including welcome signs posted at major entrance corridors around Williamsburg, a symphony concert in early September and block parties later that month.

Nester also presented possible sites within a few miles of the College campus that could possibly serve as off-campus student housing, including a site next to Wawa on Richmond Road, which the College already has plans to develop into a shopping and residential complex, and the Dillard Complex on Ironbound Road, where dorms were used to house students until 2006, when the new Jamestown dorms opened on campus. The buildings have sat vacant ever since.

Other sites Nester identified include by the new School of Education on Monticello Avenue, inside the Williamsburg Shopping Center and a site behind Berkeley Middle School on Ironbound Road.

“I want to underscore first that this is really an exercise in what might be part of a solution, but that the city is not poised to do any of this development, nor do we own any of these parcels but one,” Zeidler noted. “It is really just putting together some information that may help us move forward with a solution.”

Finally, the council also reviewed a new noise ordinance. Williamsburg, like many other Virginia localities, had to institute a new noise law after the state supreme court struck down Virginia Beach’s law, which specified a level that would offend a “reasonable person,” as too vague.

The proposed ordinance differs from Virginia Beach’s new noise law, which sets absolute decibel levels depending on the time and location. Instead, the new law specifies 11 situations that City Attorney Joe Phillips said account for almost every noise complaint.

The situations include television, radio or musical instruments audible across residential lines, horns or whistles in general, yelling or shouting between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and gatherings of 10 or more people lasting 30 or more minutes that is not contained inside and is audible across property lines.

“We feel from the standpoint of a useful ordinance the specific situation ordinance is really the most desirable from the city’s standpoint because it does not require a level of expertise, of training, and of proof that a straight decibel-based ordinance would require,” Phillips said.

He noted the new ordinance is similar to that of Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech. In fact, he said, much of the ordinance was copied from Blacksburg’s municipal code.

As a catch-all, the city also included maximum noise levels in case of an unforeseen situation. In residential areas noise is limited to 65 decibels between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and 55 decibels between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Normal conversation averages around 60 decibels.

First-time violators face a class 2 misdemeanor charge, carrying a $300 fine. Subsequent violations in a one-year period will bring $500 fines.

The council will likely approve the new noise ordinance at its Thursday meeting.

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