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With fall semester near, Towson University's neighbors say ordinance continues to curb unruly student gatherings

Joe La Bella, president of the Towson Manor Village Inc. community association, talks about Baltimore County's social host ordinance, near Towson Manor Park. Residents say the ordinance has improved community relations with the college and helped reduce complaints about loud, off-campus parties held by students.
Joe La Bella, president of the Towson Manor Village Inc. community association, talks about Baltimore County's social host ordinance, near Towson Manor Park. Residents say the ordinance has improved community relations with the college and helped reduce complaints about loud, off-campus parties held by students. (Margarita Cambest/ BSMG)

As Towson University students prepare to head back to campus this week, university officials say complaints of loud, unruly gatherings near the campus are down by as much as 50 percent in some neighborhoods since the Baltimore County Council passed an ordinance to deter problem behavior.

After numerous neighborhood complaints of public urination, property damage and excessive noise in residential neighborhoods, the council passed the Social Host–Unruly Social Gatherings ordinance in January 2016 to target problem landlords and renters through their pocketbooks.

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The two-year pilot, which was introduced by County Councilman David Marks, will expire in January.

With a full school year having passed since the enactment of the ordinance, neighbors, Towson University officials and county police officials say it is working to curb problem behavior.

Marks said he will seek reauthorization of the legislation.

"I think it's having the effect we wanted and it's had, more than anything, a deterrent effect," said Marks, a Republican who represents Towson. "Renters understand there are consequences."

Under the ordinance, which also affects neighborhoods near the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in Catonsville, gatherings of four or more people can be cited for behavior that disturbs the peace, with first-time offenders facing a $500 fine and 20 hours of community service while the landlord of the residence in which the gathering took place can receive a written warning.

Repeat offenders face up to $1,000 in fines and 48 hours of community service, while their landlords can eventually face similar fines and the loss of their rental licenses.

"The social host ordinance seems to have helped cut down on even those first complaints because students realize there's not only repercussions at the university but maybe also a civil fine," said Paul Hartman, vice president of the Aigburth Manor community association. "I think it's been very helpful. "

As a founding member of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations' university relations committee, Hartman helped to develop the ordinance. The umbrella civic group represents about 30 neighborhoods in Towson.

"I was hesitant to declare it was working well last year, but I think we've had enough semesters pass that the trend is definitely in the right direction," Hartman said. "It's going the right way."

Few repeat offenders

Officials launched the pilot in seven neighborhoods near Towson University, east of York Road, and near UMBC. It expanded to six additional Towson neighborhoods in February at the request of the community associations.

Data from Towson University shows that off-campus disorderly complaints from Towson neighbors to the school dropped from 50 to 25 between the school years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017.

"We have not had very many repeat offenders," Hartman said of Aigburth Manor, which saw complaints stay the same — one in either school year.

Burkleigh Square Community Association president Greg Bauer said his neighborhood is immediately adjacent to Towson University. As such, it has the highest population of student rentals and the most complaints.

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Bauer recalls a house party that occurred in the neighborhood, before the ordinance went into effect, that became so out of control an inebriated student fell onto a decorative fence on his home and crushed it beyond repair.

"It certainly has been effective," Bauer said of the ordinance. "We can tell that there have been far fewer parties."

Burkleigh Square has seen complaints to the school decease from 19 to 10, according to university data.

In Towson Manor Village, complaints to the college decreased from 11 in 2015-2016 to seven in the past school year. The parties used to happen monthly, village association president Joe La Bellahe said, adding that, since the ordinance went into effect, the neighborhood hasn't seen anything as severe.

"It's gone fairly well," La Bella said. "We haven't had these big ragers that we've had in the past."

One of several tools

The ordinance is one of many tools Towson University has used to curb neighborhood complaints and improve community relations, said Jana Varwig, Towson University's associate vice president for student affairs.

"It's designed to be an educational experience, but one of the parts that I like is the fact that there is the potential for a fine for the landlord," Varwig said of the ordinance. "It brings the landlords to the table in a way it has not happened in the past."

The university added neighborhood alerts to its notification system many years ago, allowing neighbors to be notified by email in advance of fireworks shows, emergency drills, sirens or other events. A representative from the university president's office updates the community at the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations meetings. Those updates are posted to the college's website.

Towson University's off-campus disruptive and disorderly neighborhood policy, which can have administrative consequences, was put into place 11 years ago. The university also provided money for county police to hire two additional officers at times when students might be walking into the neighborhoods late at night.

More recently, the university has increased marketing and outreach, handing out postcards to off-campus students to promote neighborly behavior. They've also hired a coordinator of community outreach, who works with students off campus and those who may be getting ready to move out of on-campus residence halls.

Last year, the university added a shuttle to take students from downtown Towson to nearby student apartments, University Village and Donnybrook Apartments.

"We're trying to address noise and, less so, house parties these days," Varwig said. "Though that was the original purpose, now it's a way to address late night noise, disturbances and disruptive behavior of any kind in the neighborhood. "

County police say they have issued about 30 citations for social host violations since the legislation was passed. In addition to having a deterrent effect, the ordinance seems to be having an additional positive outcome, said Capt. Jay Landsman, commander of Towson's Precinct 6.

Along with the underage drinking that happens at off-campus college parties comes an increased risk of assault, robbery and fights, Landsman said.

"From our view, it's a way for us to address the ... big house parties where you have over-consumption," Landsman said. "The concern for us is [the parties create] an environment for other kinds of victimizations — fights, assaults, robberies."

"This will be the second full school year with it in place, so we're anxious to see how the off-campus communities react to that," Landsman said.

Former Towson University Student Government Association member Patrick Mascio, a rising senior, said the ordinance initially rattled some students who believed the college was unfairly targeted.

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If out-of-control gatherings really were a problem for some neighborhoods, the ordinance makes sense, said Mascio, who lives off-campus.

Students "were mad when it was happening, but nothing changed," Mascio said of the students' ability to host small gatherings.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this story.

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