Baltimore County considers fines for 'unruly social gatherings' in Towson

Is the party over in Towson? Baltimore County considers fines for "unruly social gatherings."

Towson residents who have long complained about college parties with blaring music and revelers urinating in bushes and vomiting on sidewalks are heralding a new proposal to levy fines against those who host raucous parties — and, more controversially, the landlords who rent to them.

Legislation proposed by Baltimore County Councilman David Marks is aimed squarely at incidents involving Towson University students who rent private homes off-campus.

"I'm hoping it will have a deterrent effect," said Marks, a Republican whose district includes Towson. "If landlords are managing their properties and renters are behaving appropriately, then the police will never be called and these sanctions will never be used."

For landlords, penalties in Marks' bill start with a warning, escalate to fines from $500 to $1,000 and could lead to revocation of a rental license after three or more offenses. For party hosts, penalties start with a $500 fine and 20 hours of community service and increase for subsequent violations.

Landlords are vowing to fight the bill, saying they can't always control the behavior of renters and that county officials and police already have plenty of tools to keep the peace — but aren't using them.

Marks said he wants to target "unruly social gatherings" — events that include underage drinking or other conduct causing a "substantial disturbance of the peace and quiet enjoyment" of the community. Examples cited include excessive noise, excessive traffic, blocking of streets, drug use or other criminal behavior.

"We want to encourage landlords to be good managers of their properties — as many are — as well as for tenants to understand their responsibilities," he said.

Marks is proposing a two-year pilot program in six neighborhoods with about 1,200 houses across York Road from Towson University. The bill will be discussed at a council work session Tuesday, and is scheduled for a vote Jan. 19.

Paul Hartman, a resident of the Aigburth Manor neighborhood since 1988, said a nearby party house inspired him to get involved with his community association. The same month he moved in, a house down the street was rented by a group of students who routinely kept his young daughter awake with loud partying.

"It's not like they were intending, 'Let's bother the neighborhood,'" said Hartman, who is vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "They want to have fun, but aren't aware of their surroundings and who else is there."

Aigburth Manor would be one of the Towson neighborhoods in the pilot program; others are Towson Manor Village, Burkleigh Square, Knollwood-Donnybrook, Overbrook and Wiltondale.

Hartman hopes landlords who get citations will impress upon their tenants the importance of being good neighbors "and that's the end of it and everyone's happy."

"We don't want to shut the fun off for everybody and make it a lockdown community," he said. "But we do want people to behave properly in our residential neighborhoods."

Towson University acknowledges that students are among the offenders when it comes to boisterous parties, though officials say they've worked in recent years to eliminate offensive behavior. The university changed its student code of conduct so that students found responsible for hosting off-campus parties that bother neighbors can face disciplinary action such as fines or being put on probation, said Jana Varwig, the university's associate vice president for student affairs.

Last school year, 62 students faced discipline related to off-campus issues, Varwig said.

University officials educate students about acceptable off-campus behavior, Varwig said, but each fall there's a new crop of off-campus renters who have a learning curve. The first months of the school year generate the most complaints from neighbors, she said.

"We really do care that students understand their obligation to be good neighbors," she said.

Varwig said the university is neutral on Marks' bill but will educate students about it if it passes.

The measure has support from Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who said excessive drinking by young people contributes to crime and public safety problems in residential neighborhoods and along the York Road commercial corridor.

He said landlords need to be more aware of what happens on their properties.

"Unfortunately, many of the landlords are absentee. They aren't on the premises and probably don't know what's taking place," Shellenberger said.

The bill includes provisions that if the county incurs expense to "remove the nuisance or the cause of the nuisance," the cost would be added to the landlord's tax bill. Failure to pay fines could result in a lien on the property too.

Thomas Tompsett, director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said Baltimore County has plenty of laws in place governing underage drinking, excessive noise and too many people living in a rental property. The association, which represents apartment complexes as well as landlords with one or two rentals, opposes the bill.

"When you think about laws, you want to see how the government is using the tools it has," he said. "The county is doing a lousy job using the laws on the books."

The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors hasn't taken a position on the bill, but immediate past president Ross Mackesey, a sales manager for Long & Foster in Lutherville, said he too would like to see more enforcement of existing laws "before we keep laying on another layer and improving and extending it to the landlord."

One way to address the problem of student rentals in residential neighborhoods is to allow for more student-oriented housing complexes to be built, he said.

Towson University's student population grew rapidly in the last 10 years without a corresponding increase in on-campus dorms — so students spilled out into residential neighborhoods, renting out a greater portion of private homes. Currently, Towson University has about 22,000 students and room for 6,000 students in dorms.

Projects such as a proposed student high-rise at 101 York Road and student housing in the large mixed-use Towson Row project would help get students out of the residential neighborhoods, Mackesey said.

"The real fix here, part of it, is for there to be more housing opportunities," he said.

Not all residents favor Marks' bill. Greg Bauer, president of the Burkleigh Square community and a resident since 1976, said he's fielded complaints for years from residents about late parties, noise, loitering and other disturbances.

He'd love to see a solution but said the council proposal "is so watered down, so nebulous, so ambiguous I'm not certain it can properly be applied."

Joe La Bella, president of the community association at Towson Manor Village, is more optimistic. He hopes citations for landlords and party hosts will calm things down in his neighborhood.

It wasn't long ago that La Bella, 30, was a college student himself, and he said he tries to be "a fairly reasonable person" when it comes to student behavior. But he said many parties in his neighborhood go beyond what most people bargained for when they moved into Towson.

He recalled a party last fall that started on a Friday afternoon and lasted late into the night with thumping music, attended by at least 50 people. Another time, he said, a neighbor later showed him video of revelers streaming out of a small duplex. The parade of people went on for several minutes, he said.

"It seems like a strange optical illusion because there's no way all these kids could be packed into this tiny place," La Bella said. "You're watching it and it doesn't seem real."

David Riley has experienced both ends of the spectrum in 30 years living in the Knollwood neighborhood. His current neighbors are Towson University football players who are quiet and polite. But he's had to call police on past tenants to shut down massive parties.

He thinks Marks' bill would help keep the balance between allowing kids to have fun and maintaining a stable, family-friendly community.

"I think it is a great option," Riley said. "I think it will improve the quality of life … not only for the longtime residents here, but also for the students."

pwood@baltsun.com

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