Baltimore County

Towson looks for solutions to town-gown relations

From her years living near Towson University students, Trish Mayhugh has come to expect conflicts — over raucous parties, parking snafus, dented vehicles and the occasional stolen lawn ornament.

But the Riderwood Hills woman hasn't given up hope for a more peaceful coexistence.

Mayhugh and others are looking to a new task force, the Greater Towson Residential Task Force, which met Wednesday for the first time, to help provide long-term solutions to the strained relations between the school and its neighbors.

University and county officials have tried for years to address community issues by improving communications and stiffening sanctions against misbehaving students.

Still, tensions with neighbors have persisted as a growing number of students, attracted by affordable rentals, stream off-campus to neighborhoods such as Burkleigh Square, Towson Manor Village and Rogers Forge.

Mayhugh, the mother of three adult sons, said she's not opposed to college students enjoying college life. "I just don't want it in my backyard all the time."

Councilman David Marks said he heard complaints about the relationship on the campaign trail last fall. It was Marks who organized the task force, which includes county officials, university leaders, students and neighbors.

Other area schools have tried to avoid similar conflicts by building more residence halls to accommodate growing enrollment and placing dormitories either on campus or in rural or commercial areas nearby, where they are less likely to impinge on local residents.

Loyola University Maryland requires students to sign a contract stating that they will not live in certain areas. The school's "community standards agreement" sets expectations for student conduct off campus.

A Loyola spokeswoman said that students found to be living in an area that the university had declared off-limits would be directed to move.

In recent years, Towson University has attempted to address neighbors' concerns about unruly students by increasing its campus police presence, establishing off-campus behavior codes, creating a full-time staff position to address issues from students and neighbors, and forming a cadre of "community ambassadors," students who help their classmates get acclimated to living in the neighborhoods.

Since then, complaints have dropped, according to a university spokeswoman.

"Communities obviously want a certain level of peace and quality of life, and we understand that," spokeswoman Marina Cooper said.

Among area schools, the conflicts seem most acute at Towson.

Stevenson University's main campus is nestled among large estates and horse farms in the Greenspring Valley. But the school houses its students in Owings Mills, bordered by the former Rosewood State Hospital property and the Owings Mills Boulevard commercial corridor.

"We are in a fortunate situation," university spokesman John Buettner said. "Like other schools, we deal with student issues, but they don't spill out into neighborhoods. We're in the opposite situation of Towson University."

Fast-growing colleges and universities should understand that "communication is key," said Kim Griffo, executive director of the International Town-Gown Association at Clemson University in South Carolina. The organization has worked with Georgetown University and the University of Maryland at College Park.

She suggests that neighborhood associations try to include students in community service projects and other social activities to build better relationships.

"When they get to meet and make eye contact and see that these are their neighbors, the tension seems to lessen some," she said. "The neighbors are less likely to call the police, and the students are less likely to party as loud."

Griffo also recommends requiring students to inform campus officials and police when they are having a party and getting recommendations from university leaders in campus organizations.

Towson University enrolls more than 21,000 undergraduate and graduate students, but guarantees housing only to its college freshmen. Campus housing now accommodates about 40 percent of undergraduates, but the school is planning to build residence halls to accommodate 2,400 additional beds by 2018.

The school's undergraduate enrollment has increased by 30 percent in the past seven years. Graduate enrollment has increased by 53 percent in the same time period.

"Most people think that because our enrollment has gone up, that should directly correlate to the number of beds on campus," Cooper said, "but not all of those people want to live on campus or are eligible to live on campus."

Baltimore County has attempted to address poor off-campus behavior by imposing tougher sanctions on landlords.

Marks asked the task force Wednesday to explore creating a special overlay zone for Towson University, that would require additional rules and penalties for residential areas near the school, and take a look at the code enforcement process and whether property owners have sufficient tools to evict problem tenants.

He also wants them to look at ways to enhance neighborhood stability and accommodate student renters.

"I'd like you to be imaginative," he said.

Some residents on the task force complained that some consider Towson a college town.

"We're losing people to other parts of the county, and they're never coming back," said Mike Ertel, a past president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. He said Towson is losing starter homes in neighborhoods such as Burkleigh Square to college renters.

Local landlord Randy Cooper said being a college town has its benefits.

"Instead of us against them, we should be celebrating," said Cooper, who is not related to the university spokeswoman. He spoke of student spending on local businesses.

Towson University senior Scott Rappaport, one of the school's community ambassadors, said students and neighbors need to work together.

"I feel like residents have a preconceived notion that students are going to come in and cause havoc. So, students feel like they're being attacked because they're not being given a chance," said Rappaport, 21. "We need residents and students to really trust each other."