Rowdy house parties near the University of Virginia could soon land hosts in a heap of trouble. The city of Charlottesville is set to make noise violations a much more serious offense in an effort to snuff out loud partying in student-heavy neighborhoods.
Currently, a noise violation carries a fine of up to $250, but neighborhood leaders and city officials say some fraternities simply choose to take the hit and party on.
“For a lot of the students, that’s pocket change,” said Ladi Carr, an active member of a Venable neighborhood committee created to work on the noise issue. “That does not even get their attention.”
Under a pending change to the city code, the maximum fine would quadruple to $1,000 for first-time violators, who could also face arrest and up to six months in jail. Repeat offenders would face a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.
UVa students who live in the Venable area were less-than-thrilled to hear the news.
A fraternity brother, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, said the $250 fine is already excessive.
“Anything past that, including arresting someone for it … it’s kind of absurd,” he said.
Noise violations are now categorized as a Class 4 misdemeanor, the lowest on the scale of criminality.
On Monday, the City Council will consider redefining noise violations as a Class 2 misdemeanor for first and second offenses. Repeat offenders — those who are convicted of more than two noise violations in a 12-month period — would be hit with a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Councilors are scheduled to vote on the issue at a meeting starting at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall. The noise ordinance change has been placed on the meeting’s consent agenda, which is typically a package of uncontroversial business approved en masse without public debate.
Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services, said jail time for noise violators is unlikely, and would only be an option for those who refuse to comply with the police.
“They don’t intend to use jail unless somebody is absolutely being a jerk,” Tolbert said.
Though the ordinance change was spearheaded by situations in neighborhoods near UVa, the new punishments would apply to noise violations throughout the city.
A City Hall memo prepared for councilors explains that residents of the Venable and University Circle neighborhoods have complained about repeat violations of the noise ordinance.
Venable holds the honor of producing the most noise complaints of any city neighborhood for two years running. In 2011, there were 377 noise complaints from Venable, according to police statistics given to the neighborhood association, but just four resulted in a citation.
The next-noisiest neighborhood was Jefferson Park Avenue, which produced 174 complaints.
Erica Goldfarb, the president of the Venable Neighborhood Association, said the party noise was particularly bad in the past year and that students have been unmoved by requests to quiet down.
“They kind of laugh it off when the police show up,” said Goldfarb, who works in the UVa International Studies Office. “They turn off the music for 20 minutes. Then they turn it back on.”
The city police department has also agreed to change its warning policy when responding to noise calls.
In the past, police officers would give a warning the first time they were called to an address on a given day. Under the new policy, police would give one warning the first time they were called to an address in a year, and subsequent calls would result in a citation with no additional warning.
Students seemed to find the warning change the most troublesome aspect.
“We want to be respectful of the community … but I really don’t like that,” said Creigh Greensmith, a rising fourth-year.
Multiple students said they felt they had a mutual understanding with police who responded to the neighborhood, and that the parties would usually quiet down after a police visit. Some also took issue with the fact that the new rules were being passed rather quietly at the end of summer, right before most students return to Charlottesville.
“I would’ve liked for it to have been more of an open discussion,” Greensmith said.
Goldfarb said she thinks the steeper fines will do the trick.
“I think our hope is it’s only going to take about one or two of these before the word really starts getting around that this is happening,” Goldfarb said.
The city has set the maximum nighttime sound level at 55 decibels for residential zones, or about the level of sound produced by a normal conversation.
“It’s pretty much two people talking on a balcony,” Carr said. “But I can tell you, nobody in the neighborhood calls the police at 2:30 in the morning because two people are talking on the balcony. It’s usually the beer pong on the balcony.”
Carr, who lives on University Circle and works in the UVa School of Medicine, said she knew when she moved to the neighborhood to expect football weekends and graduation festivities.
“But parties starting on Wednesday and going through Sunday every week … it just gets tiresome,” Carr said.
The neighborhood first took its concerns directly to UVa, but Carr said she was told that because the student rentals and Greek houses lie in city neighborhoods, the noise is an issue for city police.
Neither the UVa Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life nor the head of the UVa Inter-Fraternity Council responded to requests for comment. UVa is scheduled to begin fall classes on Aug. 28.
Carr said she knows that some students view complaining neighbors as wanting to take the fun out of college, but she doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not destroying your college experience,” she countered. “When you’re living in my neighborhood, it’s not your college experience. It’s my neighborhood.”
Ashley Simpson, a doctoral student pursing an education degree, said she’s not a big fan of the noise in the neighborhood, but it shouldn’t come as a shock to those who live there.
“I think it’s a part of college life,” she said. “And undergrads are going to do what they’re going to do.”