Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler appointed members of a focus group that will be tasked with considering possible changes to the controversial three-person rule Friday.
Currently, the city prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together in a Williamsburg residence.
In addition to several city residents and officials, Zeidler appointed College of William and Mary students Nick Fitzgerald ’09 and David Witkowski ’11 to the group. Fitzgerald, the editor-in-chief of the online edition of the Virginia Informer, a conservative campus newspaper, also serves on the Student Assembly Executive Appropriations Committee. Witkowsky is the SA Secretary of Public Affairs. The appointment of an additional student is pending.
“I selected people with suggestions from others,” Zeidler said. “I wanted to keep it a relatively small group so people could have their voices heard, [and] I wanted to have students represented by more than one student.”
Zeidler chose Fitzgerald and Witkowsky via recommendation of SA President Valerie Hopkins ’09.
“I think the mayor intended for it to have a broad representation of neighborhoods and positions on the city ordinance,” Hopkins said. “She asked me for several student recommendations, however, and for the most part, trusted my opinion.”
The 12-member panel will investigate residents’ concerns regarding students living off-campus, student objections to the three-person rule, and will explore possible revisions of the city’s housing statutes.
The panel’s focus will be the future of zoning and housing in Williamsburg.
“Clearly the three-person rule is the biggest issue,” Fitzgerald said. “But hopefully we can find a compromise and some middle ground and reach an equitable solution for all parties.”
According to Witkowsky, the community dialogue could bring progress to an issue that has divided residents and students in Williamsburg for years.
“The goal is to discuss issues [including] occupancy rules in the city and to ultimately [deliver] an optimal solution to the Planning Commission and City Council about how to deal with current occupancy rules,” Witkowsky said.
Williamsburg has been slow to act and reluctant to discuss amending the housing and zoning laws in the past, Fitzgerald said, echoing others who have criticized the panel for being merely a formality.
“Hopefully we’re not there to just screw around, [but] I’m optimistic,” Fitzgerald said.
Students will represent a minority of the panel. Several panel members have expressed support for the three-person rule.
“Yes we’re outnumbered, but we were put together for a reason,” Fitzgerald said. “This issue doesn’t have an either-or solution, and hopefully the focus group can find a third option.”
Fitzgerald said residents’ concerns are not with student neighbors so much as the quality of those neighbors.
“The three-person rule does not directly address the problems residents have with students,” he said. “I live in a properly zoned building across the street from the Methodist church … we’ve never had a complaint.”
Hopkins said the problem lies in the number of student renters.
“I firmly believe that many of the reasons why some residents are so diametrically opposed to changing the rule may be related to the number of people per house but they are not at the root of the problem,” Hopkins said.
The panel’s ability to find compromise may be affected by the city lawsuit against students living at 711 Richmond Rd. who allegedly violated the three-person rule.
Zeidler said that she was not sure how the focus group would be affected by the case.
“I think it is one piece of information that may be discussed,” Zeidler said. “I’m not going to tell them what to talk about.”
Fitzgerald said the incident has been critical in the dispute over the three-person rule.
“It definitely shows us where the city is at,” Fitzgerald said.
While the focus group will investigate local housing and zoning issues, it probably will not end the three-person rule.
“I don’t think it will be abolished,” Fitzgerald said. “My goal would be to find a third option and we go from there.”
However, the new dialogue could bring more tolerance between both sides.
“I hope that the focus group will finally come to a conclusive and comprehensive understanding of the true sources of tension,” Hopkins said. “I am hoping that the members of this group will convene in the spirit of mutual interest and understanding and that they will be creative and open to new solutions.”
The panel begins public meetings next week. A report is expected in May.