City remains divided on 4-person rule

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August 28, 2009

2:46 AM

The first signs of official movement on a possible change to Williamsburg’s controversial three-person rule came this summer after 10 months of negotiation, discussion and preparation.

The three-person rule, which stipulates that no more than three unrelated people may reside in one house in the City of Williamsburg, is considered by students to be a prejudicial policy that prevents them from living off campus.

After a focus group convened by the city council failed to agree on any changes to the rule earlier this year, the council, at its June meeting, instructed city staff members to consider the focus group’s final report and create a draft proposal for discussion and consideration.

City staff members presented their draft to the council at its Aug. 10 work session.

The proposal stipulates that a house may be rented to four unrelated people if they were to receive a special use permit which would cover four years, from the city. The permit application would cost $800.

Prerequisites would include that site and floor plans were submitted to the city prior to occupancy, that the house in question had more than 2,000 square feet of living space, that one bedroom was available to each person, that there was one bathroom per two bedrooms and that four off- or on-street parking spaces were present.

The proposal also gives the City more power to enforce occupancy laws. Deputy City Attorney Christina Shelton briefed the council at its July meeting on difficulties the city faces investigating and prosecuting offenders. The city 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 powers of investigation. 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, it would also reserve the right to inspect homes if substantiated complaints were registered.

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

According to Planning Director Reed Nester, an application 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, which Nester said would likely take three to four months. Administrative approval, an alternative to the special-use permit, would likely have a smaller fee, or no fee and could take as little as three weeks.

At the August meeting, the council discussed the draft proposal. Some voiced concern over enforcement issues.

“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 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.”

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

Knudson countered that if you want to rent to three people, you don’t have to apply got a permit.
Council member Paul Freiling ’83 said that the real problem lies 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 ultimately sent the draft to the commission for review and revision.

The commission met for a regularly scheduled meeting nine days later, prompting commissioners to hold off on in-depth discussion until their September meeting. During its preliminary discussion Aug. 19, many commissioners seemed opposed to altering the three-person rule.

Commissioner Greg Ballentine said that the proposal should not be called a “proposal,” arguing that it is merely a basis for discussion. A proposal, he said, denotes a finality that could wrongfully indicate to
residents that the situation is decided.

Notably, Ballentine hinted at looking to lower the number of unrelated people allowed to live together.

“If it’s a discussion draft, then I think everything’s on the table, including whether this applies to a three-person rule; or do we go to a two-person rule?” he said. “So when we get to the discussion of it, I think it’s open to everybody to speak to the issue generally and not necessarily this so-called proposal.”
Ballentine was the only commissioner to explicitly announce his disapproval of any four-person rule at the August meeting.

“Whether we go to four or not — and I hope not — we ought to look at the three-person rule very carefully,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Joseph noted his fear that the illusion of finality could provoke residents. Joseph was concerned that city residents would misinterpret the proposal, thinking it a final product when in fact it is still flexible.

“If we have a public hearing next September — and the image is that we set up this whole stage to go from three to four people — we’ll have everybody and his uncle at that meeting opening up old wounds which I don’t think we want to open up,” Joseph said. “When I say old wounds I mean there’s a lot of people behind the scenes trying to foster good relationship between the school and the town, and if we have a session like we had three or four years ago where somebody got up and said the students were a cancer to the city and all that stuff, a lot of what’s been gained is going to be lost.”

Joseph was referring to the May 5, 2003 city council meeting, at which Williamsburg resident David Krahnbuel, a Harrison Avenue resident, called student renters a “cancer.”

To allow residents to have ample comment time, the Planning Commission will review the draft proposal at its Sept. 16 meeting, followed by a special two-hour work session Sept. 23 at 4 p.m.

Commissioners were careful to stress that its likely a decision will not be made after those September meetings and that they will carefully review the law before making recommendations to city council.
City residents often spoke at meetings about the three-person rule this summer.

Resident Ruth Griffioen, a music professor at the College, was one of many residents who spoke at the council’s June meeting, when it instructed city staff to create a draft proposal. Griffioen said 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.

Griffioen also said programs that would teach off-campus students 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.”

At the August city council meeting, resident Terence Wehle ’77 cautioned to allow time for residents to voice their opinions.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re moving forward quickly on it,” Wehle told the city council after it had voted to send the draft to the Planning Commission. “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.”

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