The past was prologue last week as a Keene City Council committee was presented with a draft proposal to rein in disorderly gatherings in the city’s neighborhoods.
The discussion at the June 10 meeting of the planning, licenses and development committee was sparked by nine residents who submitted a draft social-host ordinance to allow the city to take action against those holding what they call “unruly gatherings.” Although their proposal would apply in all neighborhoods, the nine, who live east of Keene State College, are openly targeting disruptive behavior by the college’s off-campus students living in their neighborhood. The issue has long strained relations between the college and its neighbors, but past attempts to address it have defied easy answer.
In 2008, the council mulled an ordinance that would have assessed property owners “points” for a broader array of zoning, noise and aesthetic violations, including those committed by tenants, but abandoned it a year later as too complicated to enforce.
In 2014, the council fielded a request from Keene Pumpkin Festival organizers for an ordinance to control large gatherings by, among other things, requiring a city permit. The request came too late to prevent the catastrophic rioting that broke out near the college campus on that year’s festival weekend. The proposal then languished in committee and a year later, with the festival on hiatus, was dropped.
And three years ago, then-Mayor Kendall Lane took another stab at the issue, floating a proposal to fine landlords if police were called to one of their properties for noise complaints, fighting or other violations more than three times in a year. The proposal met with strong landlord resistance and also went nowhere.
The approach advocated this time by the nine residents is to focus on the hosts of “unruly gatherings,” which their suggested ordinance would define as those where alcohol or illegal substances are present or where two or more criteria from a list of disruptive behaviors occur, such as excessive noise, indecent conduct, littering, property destruction and the like. Penalties would start with education about the ordinance and a potential fine, with increasing fines and penalties for subsequent offenses. Ultimately, property owners would also be fined on a third violation if they have not been actively addressing the issue with their tenants.
Seeking to hold property owners accountable scuttled some of the past proposals, as landlords pushed back against being held responsible for their tenants’ behavior, citing lack of communication from the city and police and the burden, particularly for those with multiple units, of monitoring tenant conduct. It is encouraging, then, that one local landlord who spoke at last week’s committee meeting, Toby Tousley, didn’t disagree with the residents’ draft ordinance and instead stressed that no proposal would work without better police communication with landlords and that college involvement in holding off-campus students accountable was necessary.
Given the fruitless steps to address concerns in the past, the narrowing of the principal enforcement focus to those hosting the gatherings is a promising step, and the college’s involvement will indeed be important. In remarks to the committee, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon cited an arrangement in San Marcos, Texas, where a city community liaison representative, funded in part by the college there, follows up on neighborhood calls and issues with both party hosts and landlords. She also stated she sees any arrangement being tied into the college’s judicial system as well as the city’s, and reported initial conversations with Keene State President Melinda Treadwell have been promising.
After discussion, the committee voted unanimously to request city staff to draft for the committee’s consideration a social-host ordinance tailored for Keene. The devil is in the details, of course, and a host of issues will surely need to be addressed to satisfy residents, landlords, the college and the city. Still, the prospect for a meaningful and workable framework to address an issue that has long vexed town-gown relations is encouraging.