When University of Virginia student leaders went to Charlottesville City Hall last week to tell city officials that they're capable of peacefully co-existing with their older neighbors, Miles Kirwin had a success story to tell.
The City Council was scheduled to hear an update on noise issues in the UVa-heavy Venable neighborhood, and students wanted to convince city officials that better community relations, rather than stricter laws, could solve noise and trash problems.
Kirwin, the president of UVa’s Theta Chi fraternity chapter, said his Venable neighbors were none too happy last year when they learned of Theta Chi’s plan to expand its house on Preston Place by adding five more bedrooms, which some feared would lead to bigger parties and bigger noise.
In the process of getting a building permit approved, Theta Chi met its skeptics. After a concerted effort to win them over, Kirwin said, things have changed.
Neighbors have invited him to dinner and taken care of his dog. Another gave him two paintings of the fraternity house, one of which featured a massive inflatable pirate ship that had been set up for a party.
One couple asked Kirwin if he could give their children a ride. He couldn’t, but he appreciated being asked for such a basic neighborly favor.
“She’s at least comfortable enough to let me drive her kids to school,” Kirwin said. “Which I think is pretty cool.”
By meeting the neighbors, putting a set of ground rules in writing and going door-to-door before each party, Kirwin said, Theta Chi has largely avoided the noise conflicts that have prompted the city to consider boosting the penalties for noise violations.
“We don’t really have to deal with that because they don’t call the cops on us. If they have a problem, they just call me,” Kirwin said in an interview at the fraternity house, where 10 red stockings hung over a fireplace and construction crews worked to finish the addition.
Though Kirwin’s efforts were limited to one street, UVa student leaders say a new era of collegiality has arrived in the neighborhood writ large.
“It’s gotten much better,” student Andrew Colberg, the president of UVa’s Inter-Fraternity Council, told city officials at last week’s City Council meeting, when officials heard a report about how noisy UVa’s fall semester has been. “... We are social. But we’re also smart. We can go out into the world and do good.”
Harsher noise penalties, the students said, would set back efforts to improve relations by instilling fear and mistrust.
“I realize we are not perfect, but we are making progress,” said Neil Branch, a Crozet native who holds a leadership position on the UVa Student Council.
According to Colberg, proper party protocol now means people and bands have to stay inside, windows have to stay shut and trash has to be picked up in a timely fashion. Fraternity leaders have also made an effort to sit down with Venable and University Circle neighborhood leaders to hash out a mutual understanding. The new rules, Colberg said, will be passed down to the next iteration of fraternity leadership.
A homeowner who asked to remain anonymous said there has been modest improvement this semester, but noise is just one of the quality-of-life problems that make Venable living so tiresome that some residents want to leave.
The homeowner described finding red plastic cups and beer cans in the grass, vomit on the driveway and broken vodka bottles in the street that led to ruptured tires. Other problems include street signs being constantly uprooted, BB guns being fired from balconies and firecrackers being set off.
On Saturday morning, just a few days after councilors were told that students are cleaning up their act, residents learned that a tree in one front yard had been decorated not with shiny balls and tinsel, but with empty cans of Budweiser and Keystone Light.
Though trash problems are harder to quantify, the city can look at hard numbers related to noise.
From Aug. 15 to Nov. 8, city police received 264 noise complaints, compared with 312 for the same period last year, according to police statistics. About a dozen people received citations in that period, compared with three last year.
“It is difficult after essentially one semester to see a noticeable change in behavior,” read the city memo accompanying the numbers.
In late August, the council considered raising the fine for noise violations from $250 to $1,000 for first-time violators. Repeat offenders would face a fine of up to $2,500. By bumping noise violations from the lowest class of misdemeanor to the highest, violations could technically be punishable by jail time, but officials have said jail would be just a remote possibility.
Councilors instructed the police department to enforce the existing ordinance more strictly for one semester and report back. That report formed the basis for last week’s discussion.
The noise-ordinance proposal was spearheaded by the Venable Neighborhood Association, which told the city that noise and other rowdy behavior was degrading the quality of life for long-term residents.
At the meeting, University Circle resident Sean Carr praised the efforts of the fraternity leaders, but the problem also involves student houses that have nothing to do with Greek life.
“It’s terrific that they’re taking these actions,” Carr said. “But that’s not really addressing the larger issue.”
The council took no action at the meeting, but councilors generally seemed convinced that progress is being made.
“You’ve really risen to the challenge,” said Councilor Dave Norris, who suggested that the fraternity leaders reach out to their non-Greek peers.
Councilor Kristin Szakos said she wished the recent efforts had happened years ago, without the threat of an ordinance change hanging over students’ heads.
“Unless there’s some threat, there doesn’t seem to be action,” Szakos said.
“I’ve been working with the city for almost 40 years,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja. “This is the first time I’ve seen so many students from fraternities in line at a City Council meeting. So I’m glad to have you here.”
The councilors plan to revisit the matter in a few months, when they’ll have a better idea of whether the students’ efforts are creating real change in the neighborhood.
Kirwin, the Theta Chi president, said building relationships is key.
He said he’s delivered bottles of wine to neighbors as holiday gifts and extended invites to an upcoming open house to mark the completion of the house expansion.
“I don’t see the neighbors as a liability anymore,” he said. “I see them as an asset.”