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Cary Brunswick

August 27, 2011

Communication is key to keeping neighbors friendly

When I was in college, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment one year with three other students in a residential neighborhood, long before most communities had zoning laws.

We were pretty normal students for our time, on occasion hosting parties that included beer drinking, pot smoking and listening to music from such groups as Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad and Jimi Hendrix. In other words, music not classified as soft rock or easy listening.

What we didn't do that sophomore year was trash the apartment, have no regard for our neighbors and litter the surrounding area with beer cans and urine. I don't recall ever getting a complaint from nearby residents about noise or rowdiness. And the police seemed more concerned with our politics than our partying.

Did we change the character of the neighborhood? Probably, since long hair, peace symbols and a bullet-riddled '59 Volkswagen were not readily observed before we moved in.

I don't know; maybe we weren't so normal, because since then communities have been forced to pass regulations to try to protect residential neighborhoods from students packing old houses like cans of sardines, and the unruliness that results from it.

Oneonta instituted zoning in the mid-1970s, and the ordinance set a limit on the number of unrelated people permitted to live in a housing unit. Three or fewer people were allowed, while four or more meant a dwelling was classified as a boarding house, which was not permitted in most residential neighborhoods.

Over the decades, the ordinance has allowed the city to limit the number of students housed in one unit, though usually enforcement was applied only after neighbor complaints of rowdiness, noise and/or parking problems.

But the substance of the ordinance hit the fan two years ago when the city sued an absentee landlord after neighborhood complaints about six or more students living at 7 Walnut St.

The landlord's lawyer fought the ordinance in court and eventually the city's stringent definition of a three-member family was ruled unconstitutional by state Supreme Court Justice Michael Coccoma. So city officials rewrote the ordinance with a new definition of a family, which now can include four unrelated people as long as they meet certain criteria.

Meanwhile, the landlord, Robert Martella of Long Island, continued to buy up more Center City homes for conversion to student rentals. Next stop for Martella was 7 Myrtle Ave., where neighbors said they were subjected to noise, traffic and parking issues caused by too many students.

As a result, the city late last year filed more code-violation charges against Martella. The case is still in court, apparently delayed because of a constitutionality defense that insists the new ordinance's wording discriminates against college students.

Well, not surprisingly, by definition it probably does single out college students.

Now, like I said, I was a college student once and I've lived in the Center City for 28 years. I know firsthand how disruptive and thoughtless some students can be. But I also know that an over-occupied dwelling could house considerate and friendly students who care about their neighbors.

I'm just not convinced that the courts are necessarily the way to deal with students.

Fourth Ward Alderman Michael Lynch has lived in the Center City most of his life and he portrays the defense of his ward's neighborhoods in terms akin to warfare.

In a letter to The Daily Star, he referred to "residents mobilizing and demanding stronger, more-effective enforcement of the existing code. These same residents will continue to fight to protect their neighborhood from profiteering, absentee owners of rental properties who display callous disregard for the common good of our community."

But we still have to live with the students.

Years ago, after my young daughters witnessed nearby students "mooning" Sunday-morning drivers from their West Street rooftop, I decided it was time to negotiate some standards of conduct because numerous police visits were not having an impact.

Center City residents in other neighborhoods at that time also set up committees to meet with nearby students at the start of the school year and establish guidelines for peaceful coexistence.

What it comes down to is that it's not the quantity of students in a house or neighborhood, but the quality. And residents can affect that quality much more by negotiation than by hostility.

During the past week, thousands of college students have arrived in the city and hundreds of them live in the Center City. I urge residents to get together and organize meetings with nearby students to establish behavioral expectations regarding noise, parties and parking.

Lines of communication often work better than battle lines.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.

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