By Emily Harris
Most Washington College students may have left Chestertown for the summer, but concerns about student behavior off campus remained at the forefront of residents’ minds. The recently formed Washington Avenue Neighborhood Association (WANA) met with Mayor Chris Cerino on July 22 to voice some of their concerns.
“They wanted to share their stories about some of the experiences they’ve had with rentals,” Cerino said. “Primarily with rentals to college students where they felt the college students were being disruptive, for lack of a better term.”
Other representatives from the town were also present, and Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Xavier A. Cole attended as a representative of the College.
“The main piece is around noise and disorderly conduct that they find after hours, some weeknights, particularly on the weekends when school is in session and Washington College students are in town,” Cole said.
The proximity of these Washington Avenue rental houses to the campus makes them a frequent destination for students.
“Even if they were not planning something, a party that they’re inviting people to, it’s a known destination of previous parties, and you may get a mass of people uninvited,” said Cole.
A mandatory meeting for students who choose to live off campus is held at the beginning of the school year with Dr. Cole, the chief of the Chestertown Police Department, and other interested parties from the College and the town.
The students are brought in to discuss the responsibilities of living off campus, as well as effective ways to communicate with landlords. However, Cole still thinks there is work to be done as far as making students aware of the impact that they have within their off campus neighborhoods.
“What I want students to do is not create an artificial environment as an undergraduate student that doesn’t actually exist anywhere,” he said. He views living off campus as “an intermediate step, you start to pay your own bills, you understand these responsibilities. But you also have to self-regulate.”
The idea of a permitting process for landlords was brought up in the July 22 discussion with the Washington Avenue neighborhood association.
“That was one of their big concepts,” said Cerino. “I think the idea is that if you’re required to get a permit from the town…the permit can be revoked if the landlord is filling the house with tenants that are disruptive.”
Permits for rental properties may improve accountability for both landlords and tenants—but the fees associated with this process could have unwelcome consequences for other renters in town who are not causing problems.
“Whether it fell on the landlord or not, I think it would eventually be pushed to the students. Not even eventually…rates would go up,” said Cole in reference to the price of renting off campus. “The smarter thing to do would [be to] have the fees…higher for those houses that violate, not for everyone in the system. If you want the financial impact to be felt, have it at the people creating the problem, not the entire system.”
Cerino said it is unlikely that the town will implement a permit process immediately.
“Requiring a thousand landlords to come get permits from the town, that could be a full time position for somebody in town hall, and we don’t have that person right now,” he said. “It’s an interesting concept, I don’t know that it’s a step that we need to take, but we’ll see. If the problems persist unabated that might be something that we’ll have to look into.”
Cerino pointed out that there are regulations on the books such as the chronic nuisance ordinance to discourage unruly tenants, and part of Chestertown residents’ frustration stems from lack of enforcement.
He said, “If a house receives three citations for noise…that can be grounds for eviction…They felt like the enforcement on that from the town had been lax.”
On Wednesday Aug. 21 Director of Public Safety Gerald Roderick sent a campus-wide email on behalf of Chief of the Chestertown Police Department Adrian Baker. Baker addressed the possibility of noise complaints and police response.
“If we are called by virtue of a complaint, we will respond. If there is illegal activity, we will take action,” he said. “If you are an off-campus tenant hosting a party, you will be held responsible for your actions and may be held responsible for the conduct of any guests you have upon premises.”
Depending on the severity of the disturbances and the number of citations issued, there is also potential for students to be expelled from WC.
“There is no right to party. There never was a right to party…there are always rules, there always will be,” Cole said. “I’m a fair person, but eventually the behavior will stop. The alternative is that you lose your privilege of being here.”
According to Cerino, Zoning Administrator Kees de Mooy has been in direct contact with Washington Avenue landlords in the past about the concerns residents on the street have raised.
At this point in time, WC students have not been brought into the discussions with Washington Avenue residents.
“Yes, we do hope to meet with whatever students choose to rent off campus,” Cerino said. “It’s still early in the game, and the thing that we need to remember is that each year the renters change, sometimes there’s a 100 percent turnover.”
“A conversation with the students and the neighbors I think would go a long way,” said Cole. “We’re here to treat students as emerging adults, and students have a voice, and I want them to use it. I want them to be able to advocate what their needs are, but also be able to stand and justify for their own behaviors.”