Know Your Rights

One of my favorite professors used to comment that the weekend for UVM students started on Wednesday night and ended on Tuesday. Unfortunately he is no longer a faculty member at our university but this statement holds as much truth now as it did two years ago when he made the joke in a Thursday morning class.

Whether or not you agree with that professor, many families and homeowners who live in the neighborhoods downtown around Greene St., Loomis St, Hickok Place, Buell St. and North Union St. probably do. Over the years neighborhood groups have formed in order to confront the issue of loud college students who stomp through yards, urinate on their property, break bottles in the street and in general cause a disturbance late at night.

Some students think it is acceptable to go out on a Friday or Saturday night, wander the streets in search of the best possible party and eventually settle into a house that is jam-packed with other college students who are probably binge drinking. They contend that this drunken ritual is their right as college students especially in a college town like Burlington.

The two most common arguments students make in defense of this behavior are that 1) UVM students make Burlington what it is by substantially boosting the economic vitality of the community and 2) that these neighborhoods are the “college ghetto” and people who live there either need to ignore the noise or move out.

Of course Burlington would not be as prosperous without all of the out-of-state tuition, but where would UVM be without a faculty, business owners or city workers. This is truly the meaning of community, recognizing both what you do for it and what it does for you as well.

Community is about the balance of different interests and although there is strong student interest in being able to relax and have a good time downtown without fear of police all must remember that an interest exists that is just as important, that of everyone else.

Even if the students are right in their claims it brings the community no closer to reaching some peaceful coexistence.

Families and homeowners living downtown do not want to move out and argue it is their right to remain in a neighborhood of their choosing. They do not want to be driven away by immature and irrational drunken college kids. It makes sense to move out of a neighborhood if you don’t like your neighbors, people do it everyday. But is it right for a town like Burlington to allow families to be scared away by loud drunks? The answer is no.

The Chief of the Burlington Police Department, Thomas Tremblay states on the BPD website that “we are committed to policing with the citizens of Burlington to achieve a safe, healthy and self-reliant community.”

These words are more than just a slogan; they are an answer to anyone who thinks it ok to disrepect and neglect the concerns of other members of the Burlington community. Granted college students are not committing a serious and violent crime to the neighborhoods but their actions have a deleterious effect on the community that can be felt in the growing tension downtown.

This disrespect for the other has led many people living downtown to join forces and organize against the daily menace, which they perceive to exist. Four years ago members of the community took action and pressured city council members to adopt a new ordinance that UVM students must now deal with every weekend.

The Letter of the Law: Sec. 21-13. Noise Control Ordinance

The following is the stated purpose of the noise ordinance that many UVMers have encountered during their tenure in Vermont:

To preserve the public health, safety, and welfare by prohibiting excessive and disturbing noise and to prevent noise which is prolonged or unsuitable for the time and place and which is detrimental to the peace and good order of the community… to allow all residents of our city to peacefully coexist in a manner which is mutually respectful of the interests and rights of others. According to an email The Cynic received from Police Chief Tremblay, “73 City Ordinance violations were handed out in the past weekend (September 2- September 4). 68 were handed out the previous weekend (August 26 – 28).

The majority of these violations occurred in city neighborhoods. Violations ranged from noise, underage drinking, open containers of alcohol in public, and urination and defecation in public.”

These numbers are staggering, the picture they paint of student presence downtown is extremely negative. However, it is unlikely that every single one of these ordinances is justified and should be punished with a fine. Althought the ordinance has a seemingly good intention many now realize that the law also is a bit excessive because some innocent college students have been heavily fined.

Another reason the numbers appear to be so high is due to the “saturation” strategy currently employed by the BDP over the past few weekends. Chief Tremblay wrote that the main purpose of the saturation policy “in the neighborhoods is to deter loud noise and disorder that disturbs the peace, and ultimately affects the quality of life in Burlington neighborhoods. Much of this noise and disorder is created by people moving through the neighborhoods while they are engaged in open consumption of alcohol in public.”

While writing this article I also interviewed many other members of the BPD and one remarked that this policy was to “re-educate” and “unfortunately it [has] to be done because many students show no self control.” Another officer said, “we don’t have any desire to write these kids up” and that “we don’t have any problem with them as long as they show respect.” The same officer commented that once accosted students are generally courteous and respectful but unfortunately they do not show the same respect to the neighborhoods in which they live and travel through.

Dr. Gary Margolis, Chief of UVM Police Services recommended that students “work to develop strong relations with neighbors” because getting involved with the community members shows a level of respect and will most likely prevent them from calling the police.

He also stated that by meeting the neighbors it raises students’ level of concern about nearby families. Community members would definitely learn to respect each other more and coexist better if they sat down together and communicated their different concerns.

Currently communication may do little though because the BPD are walking the streets on weekends actively trying to maximize the number of violations and citations they hand out. Some officers have been reassigned to the weekend nights and patrol around college houses in order to issue noise violations that cost a minimum of 300 dollars for a first offense. Normally a noise violation would only cost 200 dollars but most of the citations handed out are for party or social event violations. A social event or party which is “defined as a gathering upon the premises of one or more persons not residing at the premises” that “interferes with the peace or health of members of the public or is plainly audible between the hours of 10am and 7am.” This definition is restrictive because city council members were fed up with what one called a “twenty year problem.” Even with all of the resentment aimed at college students who party and make noise in town almost every homeowner I interviewed stated that they do like the student presence because students bring a culture and vibrancy that the whole community can benefit from.

Residents claimed the noise ordinance was written this way because past ordinances were “too relaxed” making it difficult for violations to ever be handed out which failed to deter noisy parties. A community member said that the ordinance might be a bit harsh and that current students “are at the end of a tail getting whipped around.” The issue is very complex and some happy medium must be reached between the neighbors, police and students because under current conditions no one is satisfied. As UVM expands Burlington will inevitably continue to experience growing pains but it does not have to be as bad as the status quo suggests.

It took the neighborhood action committees close to ten years to organize and develop a strategy to resist our campus’ encroachment downtown. They worked hard grueling over paperwork, arguing amongst themselves but finally wrote and passed the ordinance Burlington faces today.

All of their work was done through city council members and reflects the common sentiment held by many (excluding the students). Yet if the students were to organize a new voice could be heard as well.

Sarah Poirier, Student Government President commented “UVM students have the ability to take advantage of the democratic process in Burlington and help to establish a new noise ordinance that better reflects all needs which exist in our community. I encourage anyone interested in helping to make a better informed and more inclusive policy to come to a Community on Legislative Action (COLA) meeting or to contact Ben Blumberg.”

Things to Know about the Noise Ordinance

1) The police are here to protect and serve, not to be rude and aggressive. If you encounter a rude officer take the badge number and post a complaint at www.police.ci.burlington.vt.us. The Burlington Police do care about what you have to say.

2) Between 10pm and 7am are quiet hours and are the times that you can receive the largest fines.

3) All residents on premises are responsible for any “unreasonable” noise.

4) A first offense carries a fine of $200-$400 per resident and three hours of participation in a restorative justice process in a program approved by the City Council.

5) The second offense carries a fine of $300-$500 per resident and eighteen hours of participation in a restorative justice process in a program approved by the City Council.

6) Your third offense is a $500 fine per resident, criminal charges and notification of landlord.

7) If you are issued a citation that involves noise or underage-drinking UVM will be notified and you will be required to go through the university’s judicial process.

Tips to Avoid Noise Violations

1) Meet your neighbors and give them a phone number so they can tell you to quiet down thereby preventing them from calling the police.

2) If an officer comes onto the porch let them know that you are the only member of the household that is currently in the house. If there is only one resident on the premise, then only one fine can be issued.

3) Don’t play music too loud. Keep it at a minimal level, because loud music only makes people talk louder and attracts more attention.

4) Whether you party hard or hardly party, support local breweries and try to keep the noise to a minimum.