Council Approves Ordinance to Recoup Nuisance Costs
By a 4-1 vote, the council approves an ordinance that would allow the town to recoup emergency response costs at habitual offenders.
With three amendments and a possible change down the road, the Narragansett Town Council passed a new ordinance on Monday night meant to recover police and emergency response costs from houses causing multiple noise violation disturbances.
The ordinance passed by a 4-1 margin, with councilor Christopher Wilkens casting the lone vote against. The voting breakdown was similar for three amendments to the ordinance, which were adopted before the ordinance was passed.
The ordinance gives town officials the option to recoup emergency response costs from houses causing multiple disturbances in a 12-month period. The first disturbance would be followed by a written warning.
The amendments changed the wording from “disturbances” to just disturbances related to noise, installed a 30-day appeal period, and also mandated a written warning after the first disturbance.
During public comment, the ordinance drew criticism from several groups in the audience, including two seldom on the same side of an issue – The Rhode Island ACLU and a member of the Narragansett Republican Town Committee. The ACLU claimed that the ordinance was too broad and vague to be enforceable.
However, solicitor Mark McSally said he was confident the ordinance would stand up to a court challenge.
“I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion whether something is enforceable or unenforceable,” he said. “I heard similar objections from the ACLU about the sticker policy.”
Meg Rogers, identifying herself as a member of the Republican Town Committee, said there is the potential for outlandish judgments against homeowners.
“There are no protections in here for the average citizen,” she said, referring to the fact that the ordinance would apply not just to students or renters. “Why don't you do something simple? Take the $500 or $1,000 estimate and charge a flat fee to the violators.”
As part of approving the ordinance, councilors asked McSally to look at putting a maximum cap on how much the town could recoup.
Residents Carol Stuart, Al Alba and Lois Ohberg said the ordinance has been needed for a long time.
“Our lives have been made intolerable,” Stuart said. “We have to envision people half-naked, running around in their underwear, urinating.”
Ohberg said she has had to deal with one outlandish thing after another on White Swan Drive since moving there in 1986.
“I've had a drug bust, I've had a sting next door, I've had students come up to my door,” she said. “I don't know how many mailboxes I've had.”
Both Ohberg and Stuart put the blame primarily on University of Rhode Island students.
“One student told me he pays rent, and he's not going to live like he's in jail,” Ohberg said. “They don't care. Every year it's like your children never grew up and never left home … They don't have any respect for people or people's property.”
Stuart, who has advocated on behalf of year-round residents for years as part of homeowner groups, made similar statements.
“Why should we have to put up with URI and ask for their input? Do they ask us to campus?” she said.
Despite being a property manager and owner with many student rentals, Jim Durkin said he understood where the council was coming from.
“I can't blame you for coming up with this ordinance,” Durkin said. “It's not going to put me out of business, but you don't want to put the town out of business. Students should be thought of as tourists. They come for a short period of time, and then they leave.”
Durkin added that the town has to be careful to make sure they aren't seen as inhospitable to current students, who eventually become property owners, tourists and vacationers when they graduate.
“The stores we go to and the restaurants we go to, they're not necessarily full of townspeople,” he said. “It's a big circle, and you don't want to change that circle too much to where we're going, 'We don't want you in the town of Narragansett.'”
Durkin estimated that about 90 percent of the people he rents to, he has no issues with.
“I'm right in the trenches of the students problems,” he said, adding that after a first or second warning, typically they call the parents in or modify the conditions of the rent. “I deal with it everyday.”
Charles Kenyon, another landlord, said he didn't agree with the ordinance's ability to go after those beyond the tenants.
“My family has been landlords since 1920,” he said. “You're putting a cloud over my property … Anybody I rent to can cause a disturbance. They can cause it more than once, their friend can cause it. I don't have any control over that.”
At a previous meeting, Narragansett Police Chief Dean Hoxsie estimated the minimum response cost at around $500, for a 100-plus person party.
At Monday's meeting, he said, “I think it is very limited, the number of times this could be used,” adding that it would be incorporated into the department's weekly review.