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'Unruly-gatherings' law curbs wild parties in Towson

Baltimore County's Social Host–Unruly Social Gatherings ordinance, enacted by the County Council in January, applies to any gathering of four or more people in a home near Towson University or the University of Maryland Baltimore County that features "conduct that disturbs the peace."

Towson University senior Justin Patrylow had just moved into a rental house near campus last month when he invited a few friends over for a barbecue.

They were playing music "a bit louder than we usually do," Patrylow says. But because it was a Friday afternoon, he figured no one would mind.

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He was wrong. Patrylow, a 21-year-old senior from Allentown, N.J., was hit with a $500 fine and the prospect of 20 hours' community service.

That's the penalty for violating a new Baltimore County ordinance aimed at curtailing the raucous off-campus parties Towson residents have been complaining about for years.

Enacted by the County Council in January, the Social Host–Unruly Social Gatherings ordinance applies to any gathering of four or more people in a home near Towson University or the University of Maryland Baltimore County that features "conduct that disturbs the peace."

The ordinance, modeled after similar rules passed in recent years in Ventura County, Calif., Minneapolis and elsewhere, carries a provision new to Baltimore County: It isn't only party-throwing tenants who are liable for fines and other penalties; their landlords are also on the hook.

On a first violation, landlords receive a written warning. On a second, they're hit with an automatic fine of $500.

If the revelry persists, they risk the loss of their rental license.

Seven weeks into the fall semester at Towson, neighbors say the approach is yielding results.

"Things have quieted down a lot," says Christian Estes, a Burkleigh Square homeowner. "There have been several factors. The university has been great in working with us. So has the Towson precinct. But word has gotten around about the ordinance.

The ordinance, introduced as a two-year pilot, applies to two geographical areas in the county: a clearly defined six-neighborhood zone just east of Towson University that includes about 1,200 homes, and a similarly sized area near the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

The area adjacent to UMBC has reported no activity under the policy, and the sample size in Towson is still modest. But school officials, neighbors and police agree the ordinance seems to be having an impact.

University officials who received 36 complaint calls from the public about loud parties during the first two months of the 2015-2016 school year have received only nine this year — a decline of 75 percent.

County police say officers have issued 16 citations to Towson University students.

Capt. Jay Landsman, Jr., commander of the Towson Precinct, says they've had just one instance of a second complaint on an address — a sign, he says, that the message is sinking in.

Estes, who volunteers with a citizen patrol group, says the problem is far from solved, but the change to the environment has been palpable.

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"The students don't want to be fined," he said. "They don't want to be compelled to pick up trash. And I hear their landlords are talking to them. The social host ordinance has played a major part."

Town-gown tensions over loud parties have been roiling Towson since the 1980s.

The decades since have seen enrollment at the university more than double to more than 22,000.

Neighbors have complained for years that the school failed to expand on-campus housing at the same rate, or to monitor students' off-campus behavior.

A boom in the housing market prompted some to sell single-family homes to investors interested in renting to groups of students.

Towson students spilled into the community by the thousands. The noise, traffic and parties have rankled neighbors, particularly families with children.

Paul Hartman, who moved into the Aigburth Manor neighborhood in 1988, says the problem grew steadily worse over the first 20 years. It began to improve a decade ago, he says, when "the university started taking it seriously."

The school established a policy governing off-campus behavior, and inaugurated a university relations committee.

The committee, which includes school administrators, students, members of neighboring community associations, police officers and elected officials, meets monthly to share information and propose new policies.

Neighbors can now call a campus hotline, 410-704-LIFE, to report unruly parties. The school follows up by sending officials and campus police to meet with tenants. The university can impose fines of $250 and up and other discipline.

Jana Harwig, the university's vice president of student affairs, says the school has boosted educational and outreach efforts, including campaigns to distribute fliers, an annual apartment fair, and the appointment of student ambassadors who work in the community.

Last year, though, Hartman, a member of the committee and a vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, went a step further.

He began working with representatives of the The Maryland Collaborative, an initiative of the state health department and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The program focuses on reducing underage drinking and the problems it causes, specifically at 13 Maryland colleges and universities, including Towson and UMBC.

Hartman's research with the group introduced him to social host ordinances passed in several communities around the country, starting with the one that became law in Ventura County nine years ago.

Each was tailored to its own jurisdiction, he says, but they all framed unruly gatherings as a civil matter, not a criminal one.

That meant that police officers in those areas generally had lower hurdles to jump before they could issue citations.

It also got cases into the court system faster, and members of the public could see tangible results — all without giving the offender a criminal record.

"We don't want to ruin anyone's lives over this," says Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a supporter of the law. "We just want to get a handle on the problem."

Hartman worked with Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, to craft a local version, one that included the provisions for disciplining landlords.

"That was the one piece of the puzzle I saw as missing," Hartman says.

Backers say the bill wouldn't work if authorities didn't take it seriously. They say police and prosecutors have been doing just that.

Landsman directs officers to issue citations, not warnings. Shellenberger's office has prosecuted every referred case. Judges have issued fines, community service, or both in each instance.

No one pretends the problems of binge drinking or partying-related crime are solved.

"The sample size is small, but the results are definitely encouraging," Hartman says. "Let's see how things look at the end of the year."

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According to Shellenberger, word of the punishments seems to be getting around, and that has helped. It has certainly reached Patrylow.

The Towson senior says he considers the ordinance too stringent for college students, and he wishes the public were more flexible. He plans to fight the citation in court.

But that doesn't mean the experience hasn't changed him.

He and his friends have thrown no more parties, he says, and have no plans to do so.

"It's a thousand-dollar fine for a second offense," Patrylrow says. "We're trying to lay low."

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