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Baltimore County councilman seeks to expand program cracking down on loud gatherings

A Towson program tamping down disruptive college parties in residential neighborhoods could be expanded soon to the rest of Baltimore County.

Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, wants to empower law enforcement to slap civil fines of up to $1,000 on hosts of repeated unruly gatherings and their landlords as a way to reduce noise and prevent substance abuse.

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The expansion would codify a pilot program, dubbed the social host ordinance, after it was launched in 2016 to address years of tension between permanent residents and Towson University students over loud parties. The ordinance currently covers only areas within the county police department’s Towson precinct and around the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The council voted to continue the pilot program in 2018 with a 2022 sunset provision. The proposed bill would expand the program’s boundaries to cover the rest of the county and make it permanent. Marks proposed the initial program and the current bill to extend it.

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“It creates a disincentive for bad behavior to occur,” Marks said. “I don’t think the social host ordinance has been abused, but it certainly has created the expectation that people need to be respecting peace of mind.”

Party-throwing tenants and their landlords who violate the law would be on the hook should they be reported for unruly noise. On a first violation, landlords and tenants could receive a written warning or $500 civil penalty. If there’s a second violation within two years of the first offense, they’re hit with at least a $500 fine. If the issue persists, offenders may be ordered to pay $1,000 and landlords risk losing their rental license.

A judge also can sentence violators to perform up to 48 hours of community service, although violating the ordinance is not a criminal offense.

“The concept wasn’t to criminalize people,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said. “It was just to get people who own a property ... to keep the people they’re renting to from having these big, crazy parties.”

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Decisions about when to impose penalties are left to the discretion of police, Marks said.

Neighbors in the past have questioned instances when police didn’t levy a fine, said Paul Hartman, vice president of the Aigburth Manor Association in northeast Towson, who helped draft the original social host ordinance.

“But on the whole, I think it’s working pretty well,” he added.

A social host law avoids creating criminal records for those who violate the ordinance, and allows for swifter punitive action than a criminal citation, according to the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a joint program between University of Maryland School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Community service, Hartman said, seems to be the most effective deterrent.

“Who wants to get up at 6 or 7 a.m. a couple of Saturdays and go pick up trash?” he said.

The proposed expansion follows the county’s passage of a law that allows hundreds of eateries to host live music after zoning rules originally precluded them from doing so. Some residents who testified during a public hearing on that bill, proposed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., said that opening the door for more live performances would lead to increased noise disturbances.

The social host law applies to private property, including homes, apartment buildings with up to six units, hotels, and halls and meeting rooms, according to county code.

Expanding the pilot to cover the rest of the county “just makes sense,” Marks said. Constituents over the years have asked to be included in the program, and it’s proved successful.

Noise complaints in Towson dropped from 51 in the 2015-2016 academic year to just 12 complaints from 2017 to 2018 in the aftermath of the pilot program, according to Towson University.

In 2019, the county issued 46 citations or warning letters to unruly party hosts and property owners, Shellenberger said.

“It does seem that the warning letter gets things under control,” he said.

The county is among four other jurisdictions — Baltimore City, College Park, the City of Frostburg and the town of Princess Anne — that have adopted versions of the penalty in the last six years and have seen similar success.

There were fewer police calls reporting house parties and reductions in excessive drinking at house parties among college students after the social ordinances were imposed, according to the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems.

Two jurisdictions saw a 70% drop in complaint calls for excessive noise, according to the group.

“The pilot program has worked,” Marks said. “Now let’s make it permanent.”

The Baltimore County Council is set to discuss the bill June 29 and vote at its July 6 legislative session.

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