As anyone in the City of Williamsburg with a pulse knows by now, the city has a rule on the books limiting the occupancy of rental units to three unrelated people. For the past couple years, we students have done our best to let the city know our opposition to this seemingly arbitrary rule and our desire to work together on a viable solution.
First, in the spring of 2008, we made it a primary focus of the Williamsburg City Council elections, forcing it into debates, questionnaires and every candidate’s platform. While Matt Beato ’09 was not elected, the issue of rental occupancy was certainly elected onto the agenda for the council.
Then came fall 2008, when Williamsburg made an effort to hear student leaders out on possible options to move forward with the issue. Students worked diligently and did plenty of research to yield promising results. In the end, students and various city staffers were able to put together a proposal to present to the council to further the discussion and achieve some significant results. The council moved our proposal to the Williamsburg Planning Commission — a vital step in the process of amending the city’s code — pending the creation and results of a focus group on the matter.
During the last semester, the focus group met weekly. The group was comprised of members of city staff, residents of Williamsburg and College of William and Mary administrators and students — including myself. Over the course of the time we spent together, our main focus was on researching other localities further. We tried both to identify and address the issues at stake when it came to potential increases in the occupancy rule. While the group never reached a full consensus, we did reach an agreement on what issues should be addressed in any proposed changes. Regardless of the indecisive outcome, enough was accomplished to present our research to the council toward the end of the spring semester.
Over the summer, the City Council took the findings from the focus group and crafted a document containing potential ordinance changes based on what the focus group had agreed; any points that had been divisive were posed as an option between two choices on the sample proposed ordinance. This document was then sent to the Planning Commission at the August City Council meeting. The group is responsible for examining the document, making final decisions regarding what proposed ordinance changes they would like to see and then sending it back to the City Council with either a stamp of approval or a rejection. It seemed that finally the students would be heard; we could finally see ordinance changes that could actually go into effect in the near future. At the public hearing last week, the Planning Commission took input from residents but chose to wait until the work session Wednesday to start actually discussing any possible solutions, with one exception. One commissioner voiced his absolute opposition to any changes allowing occupancy in rental units to increase from three to four.
At the work session Wednesday, I, along with several other students — who easily outnumbered the number of residents — attended to see what the Planning Commission was going to do. After everyone had their opinions heard, the commissioners took turns sharing their opinions with everyone present. Admittedly, it seemed as though the majority of the seven members leaned toward rejecting an increase in occupancy, but what happened next was just disheartening. Jim Joseph turned to his fellow commissioners and encouraged them to go ahead and take the discussion of increased occupancy off the table and to focus on the other issues brought up in the proposed ordinance.
His reasoning? Most of them already seemed to be against it, thus making a consensus that they were not interested in changing the rule.
This is not acceptable. The entire point of this process is so that people can come and voice their opinions, and so that the Planning Commission can take these opinions, consider them carefully and make the best decision for Williamsburg as a whole. Discarding an important decision at the start of it goes against the whole system. There have been too many people putting in too many hours to have one man muscle the group into rejecting this possibility in one afternoon. Fortunately, in work session no official motions can be passed to do such a thing.
So this is a call to all students. Get involved. From 4 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 7, the Planning Commission will be holding a second work session before their next public hearing where they can actually entertain the motion to reject the possibility of an increase in occupancy.
Tell your friends; tell your hall; tell everyone you know to come, and let the Planning Commission know that this is not an issue that can just be thrown away after so much work has been done to get to this point. Let them know that you have a right to be heard, and let them know that they have an obligation to hear you.
E-mail Dave Witkowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.