The StudentImpact, a student-founded political action committee, released a Change.org petition Feb. 2 to amend the City of Williamsburg’s noise ordinance. The petition refers to the ordinance as an “outdated and unnecessarily strict law that disproportionately impacts students.”
The petition asks the Williamsburg City Council to require an official complaint to be filed when issuing a noise violation, to reduce the fine for violations to $250, to increase the limit of allowable decibels outdoors after 11 p.m. and to increase the distance that merits a violation.
Requests also include reducing a noise violation from a class one misdemeanor to a class four misdemeanor; however, the city’s noise ordinance states that first violations result in a class two misdemeanor.
“Any person who violates sections 12-72 [specific prohibitions] or 12-73 [prohibited noise, generally] shall be deemed guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not less than $300 for the first offense, $500 for the second offense within a 12-month period,” section 12-76 of the City of Williamsburg’s Article V: Noise Ordinance with Amendments states. “Any subsequent offense within the same 12-month period shall be punishable as a class 1 misdemeanor.”
In 2014, the Williamsburg Police Department recorded 22 noise disturbances. Seventeen of the individuals charged with a noise violation in that year were students at the College of William and Mary.
The idea to amend the noise ordinance came from StudentImpact’s Political Director Joshua Fleitman ’15.
“I brought up the noise ordinance [at a StudentImpact meeting] because I’ve had a lot of personal experience with seeing the more unfair side of the law, especially as it applies to the students,” Fleitman said.
Co-founder and Executive Director of StudentImpact Benming Zhang ’16 agreed with Fleitman’s opinion on the noise ordinance and encouraged him to start the campaign.
“Why not amend it to a point that we all can agree?” Zhang said. “Let’s be honest, we have people that are a little irresponsible, and maybe they cause a lot of ruckus. That’s why the noise ordinance is there. We appreciate why it is there. It’s just that we believe that it disproportionately targets students for the most arbitrary reasons.”
Williamsburg City Councilman Scott Foster ’10 J.D. ’14 said he believes in finding a balance between the wishes of students and those of Williamsburg’s other residents.
“We have to remember that when living within close proximity of others, some disturbances will always occur,” Foster said in an email. “I think with some slight amendments we can better deal with true disturbances while reducing the likelihood that reasonable noise is penalized.”
Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman agreed with the sentiment that the laws must treat all citizens equally.
“I think that fairness and equity is a thing that has to be in the talks of any consideration of an ordinance,” Haulman said.
However, Haulman raised several concerns with the petition.
“One of things that it suggests is that a citation should only be issued with an official complaint, but then they later on talk about officers increasing the distance,” Haulman said. “How does a citation or violation only come in with an official complaint? Does that eliminate the officers doing something because they aren’t making an official complaint? So it’s somewhat confusing how those two parts interact with each other. Secondly, I think that the points about the type of misdemeanor are something worth talking about, particularly for the first offense.”
Haulman said he also disagrees with the idea that the noise ordinance is outdated. The City Council previously amended it in July 2012 to more clearly outline noise restrictions on public streets and sidewalks and to comply with a Virginia Supreme Court decision.
“To say that the law is antiquated and hasn’t been changed in a while is questionable,” Haulman said.
The release of the petition is only the first for StudentImpact’s multi-month campaign to amend the noise ordinance. StudentImpact leaders, including Fleitman, attended the Feb. 12 City Council meeting to read the petition to its members.
Longtime Williamsburg resident John Austin addressed his concerns about amending the noise ordinance to the City Council following Fleitman’s reading.
“Maybe some parts of Williamsburg can take the change of having later, louder noise going on,” Austin said. “But there are areas like [my] street where it was not built for that purpose. Having students there that are very disruptive and if the students followed and lived the way that what I call residents [do] — I don’t call them residents unless they have lived here for a few years — it wouldn’t be so bad.”
In the coming weeks, StudentImpact plans to table on the terrace of Sadler Center to spread its message.
The group members also plan to reach out to other student organizations, including student political groups and the Greek community, to find collaborators.
Their goal is to gain enough support to compel City Council to open a public hearing about the matter.
“We want to encourage students to find ways to branch out beyond campus, and with the noise ordinance, it brings student involvement within the city,” Fleitman said.
The petition currently has more than 1,000 signatures.
Editor’s Note: Benming Zhang ‘16 served as Flat Hat Online Editor April to October 2013.