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The Washington region is home to dozens of educational institutions. In many college towns and neighborhoods, demographics are changing. The city council of College Park recently passed a nuisance ordinance billed as a way to improve the community.
Council Member John Rigg and other members of the University of Maryland community sit down with Kojo to discuss the new ordinance and what it means for the identity of College Park.
Produced by Laura Spitalniak
- John Rigg College Park City Council Member for District 3
- Dan Reed Urban Planner, Real Estate Agent, Author, "Just Up The Pike"; @justupthepike
- Dan Alpert Student Liaison to the College Park City Council
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," on WAMU 88.5. Later in the broadcast, we'll find out what the presence of dolphins in the Potomac River means for the health of local waterways. But first, the Washington region is home to dozens of colleges and universities. And in many college neighborhoods and towns, the demographics are changing. The latest example of these dueling community identities is the noise ordinance passed by the College Park City Council last month, which prohibits, quoting here, "unruly social gatherings," an ordinance that critics say that targets University of Maryland's students unfairly. Joining me in studio to discuss this is John Rigg. He's a College Park councilmember and former president of the Calvert Hills Civic Association. John Rigg, thank you for joining us.
JOHN RIGGThank you so much. It's my pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIJohn, you introduced a nuisance ordinance targeting unruly social gatherings of eight people or more that the College Park City Council passed on September 25th. Can you briefly explain what it does, and to what end?
RIGGSure. I'd be happy to. I actually regard the nuisance ordinance as a very modest ordinance, because what it does is it captures in our city code what our community norms are around social gatherings. And these are community norms that shouldn't be controversial in communities anywhere in Maryland or the District of Columbia, I don't think, for that matter, because they target a set of sort of nine behaviors. It's very behavior-based. It defines a social gathering as a gathering of eight of more people, and then says you simply can't do one of nine things. And those nine things include furnishing alcoholic beverages to an underage person, excess noise, excess traffic, blocking the street, public urination, public defecation, use of any illegal controlled substance -- as opposed to a legal controlled substance -- vandalism of public or private property, littering, or other conduct which constitutes a threat to the public safety, public welfare or public health.
RIGGSo, you know, we certainly -- a real misperception here is that we've outlawed parties. I've heard that from some of our residents. And that's far from the truth. Our city has long been a place that, if anything, is very party-adaptive, right? We embrace our role as the home of the University of Maryland, a big 10 college town. And we welcome people to come and have a nice time in our town. But I think it's, in my view, fair to say that these nine very specific things are things that shouldn't happen at a social gathering that is sort of -- there's sort of things that are beyond the pale and shouldn't happen at a healthy social gathering in our town. They're not acceptable in other parts of our community. I don't think that they should be acceptable in College Park, either.
NNAMDIWere there specific incidents or a series of specific incidents that led you to introduce the ordinance in the first place?
RIGGSo, the history of change around binge drinking and party culture in the City of College Park has been a decades-long journey. You know, we passed our noise ordinance -- you referred to it as a noise ordinance in the introduction, but it's actually a nuisance ordinance.
NNAMDIA nuisance ordinance.
RIGGCorrect. We passed our noise ordinance 12 or 15 years ago, or so. And before that, we were sort of nibbling around the edges of social behavior. So, it's been a longer journey. I mean, I would say, every weekend, we see instances of where one of these nine behaviors is exhibited, and unfortunately, often in the context of a social gathering. And these nine behaviors are things that really, you know, sort of disrupt the lives of other local residents, both student residents and non-student residents alike. I mean, I don't think anybody enjoys having their property, you know, soiled by public urination or public defecation. I don't think anybody enjoys, you know, having their property vandalized. We're a city that is a diverse city. We are city that has a number of student residents. We're also a city that has a number of long-term residents and student residents who have to get up for work in the morning, or who put small children to bed at night, or who have medical conditions that make them sensitive to noise or disruption.
RIGGSo, this was an accommodation by the City Council to try to make sure that we could still be a place where people could have a nice time. But where we could also, you know, articulate clearly some community norms.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Dan Alpert. He is the University of Maryland's student liaison on the College Park Council. Dan Alpert, thank you for joining us.
DAN ALPERTThank you. Thank you for having me today.
NNAMDIDan, what concerns have you heard from students regarding this ordinance?
ALPERTI think one of the major concerns -- especially going into the hearing the other week -- was the ambiguity of what's going to happen to students, in particular. There was some concerns especially with the financial burden that would end up being placed on students if they were to get a fine, and then the landlords also passing on the fines they get onto tenants. And some students were also concerned that this bill is targeting them, rather than the behaviors that are truly the issues that are going on in College Park.
NNAMDIWhen you say they're targeting them rather than the behaviors implies that the behaviors that are going on in College Park do not necessarily come from students. Is that what you're suggesting?
ALPERTI'm suggesting that there are issues that happen in College Park, and that both student residents and long term residents recognize that. But by solely putting on punitive measures to address these things is not going to solve them. And that's one of the things that students were really stressing, along with a lot of the property owners and other residents got the feeling was that there are already measures in place to address these concerns. And we really want to work as a community to address these concerns rather than putting on more fines.
NNAMDIYou got a few amendments in this legislation, did you not?
NNAMDIWhat were those?
ALPERTOne of them was raising the number of people from four to eight. Another one was ensuring that if the property owner were to get the third violation and have the possibility of losing their renter's license, it would happen at the end of a lease period, rather than in the middle. Another one was ensuring that you cannot be charged for a noise ordinance and a nuisance ordinance for noise. And there is one more that I'm forgetting, off the top of head. And we were happy that we were able to get some movement. But the reality is that we wanted to see more especially with the window that this nuisance ordinance operates in is a two-year period. And one thing we wanted to make sure was that what's happening to a student one year that may be living in a residence is not happening to -- is not affecting some living there the next year, because most student residents are not living in off-campus housing for more than a year.
NNAMDIJohn Rigg, why did you maintain the 24-month period?
RIGGWe felt the 24-month period was necessary to create a proper environment for behavior change. We're, as a city, not interested in -- I mean, the fines a certainly a part of that, but it's not a moneymaking venture on behalf of the city. I candidly don't think that we're going to levee many fines for these nuisance behaviors. Rather, we wanted a sustained period of performance, especially for nuisance properties, properties that have shown consistent nuisance problems of performance that were consistent with our community norms. And so a 24-month period seems an appropriate look-back period.
NNAMDIWere you surprised by the reaction this legislation received?
RIGGI frankly was, because these nine things -- I mean, again, you know, sale of alcohol or serving of alcohol to underage persons, excessive noise, excessive traffic, blocking the street, littering, vandalism, public urination, public defecation and public drunkenness, like, these are things that are beyond the pale. And I don't really know how anybody can -- and two, they're a great credit. The University of Maryland students who appeared before us were, by and large, extremely articulate and principled in their opposition. And I appreciated that. And that's exactly why we were able to accommodate a number of amendments that they supported. But we do feel as though the two-year look-back period is important for setting the right environment to prompt behavior change, especially behavior change on behalf of the property owner. You'll notice that there is -- and as Mr. Alpert noticed -- there is the potential of loss of an occupancy permit after multiple sustained violations over that two-year look-back period.
RIGGWe found in the City of College Park that there are plenty of examples of good, responsible landlordism, people who, like my neighbors, have found both student residents and non-student residents alike who've been great neighbors. They really have been. And there are counterexamples, unfortunately, as well, places where there have been sustained nuisance activity over a number of years. And those are what directly impact the ability of our student residents and our non-student residents alike to be able to enjoy the quiet enjoyment of their property to be able to study properly for their exams to be able to get up in the morning for work or put their babies to bed at night.
NNAMDII'd like to bring Dan Reed in on this conversation, because he's an urban planner, a contributor to Greater Greater Washington, and a University of Maryland alumnus. Dan Reed, thank you very much for joining us.
DAN REEDThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAs I said you're both an urban planner and a graduate of the University of Maryland, so you know a little bit about the history of some of these communities. I'd like to bring Greta in Stafford, Virginia in before you respond. Greta, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GRETAHi, Kojo. I think -- I'm a University of Maryland alum, as well. I think part of the culture and experience of college is some of these things that are on there. I remember personally about one being shut down and flooding the streets in celebration of a game. I lived in apartments completely on the other side from the stadium, and I remember hearing the canons go off during a touchdown. The city that formed around College Park is now all of a sudden trying to control the college. They move next to a zoo and they're complaining about the smell, for lack of a better metaphor. They need to work with the college if they're going to do this. It's not a unilateral thing where they can say, "We now own the area, and we say the college needs to be quiet."
NNAMDIWell, I brought Dan Reed in because you know a little bit about the history of this area. And there was something there before the University of Maryland in College Park, wasn't there?
REEDIt was farmland, and then it was a land grant university that established the University of Maryland. And the town grew alongside it over the ensuing 150 years. But one of the things that I've been reflecting on throughout this whole conversation is the idea of community norms and who sets community norms. You know, John, you're talking about one set of community norms that longer term residents of College Park have made. But the college students -- the 35,000 graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Maryland -- have their own community norms. And what troubles me about this legislation is the idea of who is responsible for setting the norms in the community, and what do you do when you have two constituencies -- both of whom have a valid stake into this community -- with very different ideas of what is acceptable behavior? Or, I should say, very different ideas about how do you use space in the community. You know, as an undergrad at Maryland, I made my share of mistakes, and I faced the consequences for them, because the university has a code of student conduct.
REEDAnd so there -- whether you do something on campus or off, there are a consequences, as a student, you know, from the university. So, the ambiguity of this ordinance does make me kind of concerned that these nine items could be enforced inconsistently, and that the burden may fall on students, particularly students of color, who may not have the resources to respond.
NNAMDIJohn, what do you say in response to the criticism that the language in this ordinance is just too broad?
RIGGI think if you look at other nuisance ordinances from other jurisdictions -- specific to your question, Kojo, there are a couple of other points that Dan brought up that I would also like to address. But, specific to your question, if you look at other nuisance ordinances they are similarly broad. So, I have before me the nuisance ordinance for Prince George's County, which defines neighborhood nuisance much more broadly. It's "things that act in a disorderly manner that disturbs the public peace, or engages in acts, creates or maintains conditions that allows others to act in a disorderly manner." If you look at any enforcement regime, these nuisances -- this was modeled on an ordinance that we found in Baltimore County around the Townsend area. It was modeled on an ordinance that we found on Kent State. Well, in Kent, Ohio, around the Kent State University. And we also discussed with other member of the International Town Association in other cities and universities who found this sort of thing to be an effective additional tool.
RIGGWith regards to Dan's specific point about who's establishing the norms, I think that's a fair point. Although I would observe that in our four-plus-hour public hearing that we had the week before last, I believe, there was not a student up there -- or there was scarcely a student up there, there may have been one or two -- who stood up and said, "Well, these things are acceptable. These are norms that I -- these are your norms, not my norms. These are things that I reject." I think it's fair to assert that these nine things are behaviors that are unacceptable in Rockville and in Prince Frederick and in Bethesda and in Potomac and in Towson and in Howard County and in Baltimore City. And I don't know why they should be acceptable in College Park. So, this is just making that, you know, clear, in black and white.
NNAMDIHere now is Kevin in Arlington, Virginia. Kevin, your turn.
KEVINYes. I'm an alumni from the University of Maryland. I'm just curious. You're enacting another law or ordinance to govern behavior. But aren't there already laws and ordinances in place that would take care of any kind of violations that you're proposing in the current ordinance? So, it seems like another over-amount of policing and just another tool that can be used, and could be used for violating...
NNAMDIWhy were the ordinances already in place not sufficient?
RIGGWell, for a couple of reasons. Actually, one of them is in direct response to the caller's inquiry. At present, these things, you will note, have a counterpart in a criminal code, right? So, if you publically urinate, you can be arrested under Prince George's County criminal code. If you engage in public drunkenness, ditto. If you serve alcohol to minors, yes. If you vandalize public or private property, yes. Part of the goal here is reflective of a pragmatic view of our own environment. We are a university town. We proudly embrace our university. We're proud to call student residents, you know, members of our community. They are our residents. And we don't want to criminalize mistakes. This was an attempt to promulgate a regulatory regime that can change behavior or create an environment for behavior change without doing things that can impact people's future ability to get job, future employment opportunities, future ability to get into grad school. Right?
RIGGSo, it was in part we thought a tool that the city can use that falls short of engaging -- of sort of criminalizing behavior, of using the criminal code as our primary point of enforcement, but can create that environment for behavior change.
NNAMDIDan Alpert, should the University of Maryland play a larger role in regulating its students' behavior off-campus? Does campus community include residents not affiliated with the University of Maryland?
ALPERTSo, another role I serve in the university is that I'm on the University Student Judiciary, the (unintelligible) in particular, which looks exactly at what you're talking about. A few years back, the university updated its code of student conduct and said exactly that, is that you're representing the University of Maryland at all times, even off campus. And when an event happens off campus, the police will report that to the Office of Student Conduct, and then they have their process. So, there are different avenues that are addressing these issues, especially when they relate to students that are already in place.
RIGGI mean, we're a university town, but we're not just the university. There are --
NNAMDIDo you consider the students of the University of Maryland to be College Park residents?
RIGGAbsolutely. I've been referring to them as residents and student residents throughout our conversation today, unequivocally, absolutely, and in every way. That's why we've expanding voting on the campus. That's why we've become much more permissive with regards to absentee ballots. That's why we've been working with voter registration efforts on campus to try to engage with our student residents. But, to the point that Mr. Alpert just raised, not all unruly social gatherings are student unruly social gatherings. There are unruly social gatherings from non-students, as well. As a city, we have to affect a regulatory structure of laws that can change -- that can promote behavior change and sort of pro social gatherings throughout our city, regardless of the affiliation of sort of social gatherers with the University of Maryland.
NNAMDIAnother local university, American, has been attempting to add additional housing for years. Can you explain some of the debate occurring between the university and the nearby neighborhood, American University Park? And I should mention that WAMU is licensed to American University.
REEDSure. You know, this isn't an unusual tension between colleges and the neighborhoods around them. And one of the big challenges in American University is as the university has tried to provide housing on campus for students, you know, many of the neighbors in the surrounding community of American University Park were concerned about student behavior, even with on-campus housing. And so there was a new dorm constructed on Nebraska Avenue, where students were not allowed to hang, like, flags in the windows or other memorabilia, because neighbors didn't want to see it. And they were discouraged -- the windows are sealed. They don't open, because they didn't want students playing music that would go out of the windows. And I want to go back to John's point about the public hearings, you know. As an urban planner, I do community engagement with projects we work on all over the nation. And one of our constant challenges is how do you engage community members who aren't your traditional suspects, right? You know, how many college students know about public hearings at College Park City Hall? How many can attend those hearings?
REEDHow many have conflicts that prevent them from going to them? How much did the city go onto the campus itself where the students are and engage them, perhaps in forums that might be more accessible for students to give input? And I think when we talk about the decisions that a community makes and who was able to give input into those decisions, that has a huge impact on how, I think, valid or representative a community's decisions or rules are of that community.
NNAMDIOutreach to the students, John Rigg.
RIGGWell, Mr. Alpert happens to be, in his position, a primary point of outreach to the students. He is the Student Government Association Representative to the College Park City Council. In addition, you know, the City of College Park has a number of legal obligations to be able to notify residents, student and non-student residents, about changes to law and public hearings and the sort. We're very interested in additional opportunities for public outreach. You know, I was speaking with Mayor Wojahn -- who I know you've met, Kojo, and perhaps you've met, as well, Dan -- just recently about engaging with as Dan sort of our non-traditional residents. I would say that students are among our sort of usual suspects. We see students regularly at our Council meetings and our public hearings. And, in fact, of the speakers who showed up -- I think there was an organized effort. But regardless, of the speakers who showed up for our public hearing on this very topic, you know, the overwhelming majority were student residents of our city.
NNAMDIDan, Howard University has had its own share of tensions with the quickly changing neighborhood around it. Earlier this year, students voiced anger over neighborhood residents walking their dogs on the campus quad, commonly known as The Yard. Many felt that the residents were being disrespectful. What kinds of tensions did that incident indicate?
REEDHoward is an interesting case, because there's sort of -- it's of the reversal, right. The university, you know, has been this bastion of the black community and black life outside of the student body for such a long time.
REEDRight. An anchor of what was, you know, a historic center of black life in D.C. And so, as the demographics of that neighborhood has changed, in a way, it's actually the students in The Yard are talking about their norms, and neighborhood resident around them are perceived as violating those norms by bringing their dogs onto The Yard. So, it's an interesting twist. And, also, I think it reflects, you know, how a university culture can shape its neighborhood, as well.
NNAMDIIs it possible to separate the identity of a community from the school it borders?
REEDI think no more or less than you can with anything else that, you know, dominates a community. Is Ocean City separate from the ocean?
NNAMDIWhat's the ideal outcome, John Rigg, of this legislation and similar proposals? How do you measure success?
RIGGSo, I think our success is measured by never enforcing it. You know, based on the caliber of students who showed up at our public hearing -- of our student residents who showed at our public hearing the week before last, I frankly hope and in some ways expect that we will never enforce this. That will be in my measure of success, that we never have to bring a nuisance for an unruly social gathering against a resident of the City of College Park. I think that's unlikely. But that would be a measure of success. I would say we have setup a structure during implementation to monitor and troubleshoot implementation to look for other opportunities to effect behavior change that don't just rely upon the platform that we have established through our unruly social gatherings ordinance. And we're interested -- we continue to be in dialogue with the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland and with any other stakeholders -- the Prince George's Property Owners Association, for example -- who might be interested in changing the environment around social gatherings to de-conflict them, to minimize the spillover effects that tend to impact others' ability to carry on with their life in ways that don't relate to the particular social gathering. So, the short answer is, if we never have to enforce this, that would be a measure of success.
NNAMDIDan Alpert, what are you hoping -- how are you hoping this will all turn out?
ALPERTI'm hoping that we can see it implemented fairly. I think there's been a lot of comments made during the hearing from councilmembers and residents and after that say it's essentially targeting students. And I want to see it implemented fairly. I also just want to make sure students are living adequately in the city and not feeling that they have all these extra financial burdens that may come up because they're a little bit loud one night. The other, like Councilmember Rigg said, is to continue to work with the city. Unfortunately, we weren't able to be a part of the conversation before the bill was introduced. But, moving forward, Councilmember Rigg and I have already talked, along with other members of the Council, PGPOA and other stakeholders, to work together to continue to address these issues. There's a bit of unease with this ordinance, but there's not unease, as a whole. We like working together, and we're going to continue to work together.
NNAMDIWe have a guide on the details and requirements of the new College Park nuisance ordinance on our website, kojoshow.org. You can find it there. But we've come to the end of this segment. Dan Reed, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDan is an urban planner, a contributor to Greater Greater Washington, and he's a graduate of the University of Maryland. Dan Alpert, thank you for joining us.
ALPERTThank you. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIDan Alpert is the University of Maryland's Student Liaison on the College Park Council. And, John Rigg, thank you for joining us.
RIGGIt was my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIJohn Rigg is a College Park councilmember and former president of the Calvert Hills Civic Association. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll find out what the presence of dolphins in the Potomac River means for the health of local waterways. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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