City Council might put a lid on loud

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's City Council is considering two proposals that would widely expand the scope of the city's public nuisance law, allowing the police to evict home and business owners who are repeatedly making trouble in their neighborhood -- whether dealing drugs or throwing noisy parties.

Both bills have majority support on the 15-member council -- including from members who are opponents in this year's election -- and the council appears increasingly likely to embrace some form of the legislation this year. Homeowners could be evicted for a year if convicted of two public nuisance violations in a two-year period.

Though strengthening the city's public nuisance law is sure to be a winning issue with some voters, there are questions about how the measures would be enforced -- especially a proposal to make excessive noise a public nuisance. The Police Department has said it does not have equipment to measure noise levels.

"Habitually unruly neighbors are not welcome in our city," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who promised to renew efforts for the proposed noise restrictions, which she first introduced in 2005. "The message that must be sent is that they have outstayed their welcome."

Rawlings-Blake's bill, which had the backing of 10 council members when it was introduced, prohibits noise in residential neighborhoods above 55 decibels -- about the volume of a normal conversation -- and would let the police commissioner "close" an offending property for up to one year after a public hearing.

In a report submitted to the council in May, police officials said they took no position on that bill, but they noted that the department "has no equipment capable of measuring decibel levels" and suggested the council should check with the city Health Department. In its own report, the Health Department deferred to the police.

The police memo also states that "it has been difficult in the past to secure enough convictions to enable the police commissioner to 'padlock' a premises for violations, such as prostitution. We feel the same situation could apply regarding noise violations."

Like other cities around the country, Baltimore's health code prohibits excessive noise, but the current law allows inspectors only to issue citations, not close a property. A Health Department spokeswoman said the city responds to several hundred noise complaints each year and that it writes about 25 tickets annually.

Rawlings-Blake aides acknowledged that the measure would be hard to enforce broadly, but said the bill targets properties where noise is a pervasive problem. Rawlings-Blake said details of the bill would be worked out at a hearing that has been scheduled for 5 p.m. April 25 at City Hall.

A second bill, sponsored by City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., would add homicides, assaults, firearms convictions and other violent crimes to the public nuisance law -- allowing the city to close down a property where the incidents took place, in addition to prosecuting the offender. Mitchell, a candidate for mayor this year, said his proposal is geared toward reducing gang violence.

"This gives the police and the prosecutor another tool," he said. "This is intended to go after those property owners that aren't being good stewards."

Mitchell's bill, which he introduced March 26, has attracted nine sponsors, though it has not been scheduled for a public hearing.

Public nuisance legislation is emerging as an issue in the council days after a struggle between homeowners in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity came to light. Neighbors say fraternity parties have been rowdy and that the members have failed to maintain their property, at 3906 Canterbury Road.

Nearby residents, including City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, are fighting the fraternity's effort to reclaim the house, which the organization closed for renovation. Both sides are expected to appear before the city's zoning board for an April 17 hearing.

"It was very loud, and it wasn't just noise coming from inside the house. It's been a case of people coming out on the front porch, using their cell phones ... or at 3 o'clock in the morning, playing a basketball game in the back for an hour or more," said Ralph Kurtz, who lives on Canterbury across the street from the house.

Michael Goodwin, 20, and Chad Kenney, 19, both Johns Hopkins University sophomores who belong to the fraternity, stood nearby as Rawlings-Blake, Clarke and neighborhood leaders conducted a news conference in front of the house yesterday morning.

Goodwin said he did not have an opinion on the proposed noise ordinance but added that he felt neighbors are unfairly using the zoning code to take over the property. "We don't want to be zoned out of the house," he said.

Baltimore's current law defines public nuisances as prostitution, drugs, gambling and possession of stolen property. In addition to being evicted, violators could receive $1,000 fines and yearlong prison sentences.

A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said her office is reviewing the proposals.

"It happens all the time and it is, as far as I'm concerned, worth closing down a unit, if necessary," said Clarke, referring to public nuisance complaints she receives from constituents generally. "It's reached the point of desperation, because they're blasted with noise and sleep-deprived, and they want something done."

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