Thursday June 04, 2015
In City Hall, on the balmy evening of May 28, several landlords and about thirty residents gathered for a moderated discussion regarding persistent parking, noise, and ordinance violations in the East Terrace/Spear Street neighborhood. Councilors Chris Shaw and Tom Chittenden facilitated the meeting and ensured everyone had an opportunity to speak. This meeting was the fourth in recent months to focus on finding resolution to the issues faced by residents in the neighborhood.
After a suggestion by Council Chair Pat Nowak to invite landlords to a meeting with residents was unanimously approved earlier this spring, a letter was mailed and phone calls were made to encourage attendance. The letter, drafted by Nowak said, “The council’s expectation is that all owners of properties; owner occupied or rental housing, can come together to work through these problems as neighbors rather than having local government intervene.”
Residents of the neighborhood initially brought their concerns to the council in the fall of 2013. At that time, they articulated frustration regarding the conversion of many neighborhood homes to rental properties. Residents indicated that many homes in the neighborhood rent to students for $700-$900 per bedroom, due to their proximity to the University of Vermont. This practice has led to investors paying premium prices for neighborhood homes, which has made it difficult for young families of moderate income to move into what would be an affordable home in the neighborhood. The residents also believe that the city ordinance that limits the number of unrelated adults living in a single home to four is being violated.
Many of these sentiments were echoed at the Thursday night meeting and Chittenden noted the topics throughout the evening, adding suggestions to a spreadsheet with various columns outlining what residents, landlords, the city, and others - like UVM - could do to begin resolving the issues at hand.
Several landlords were present to explain their viewpoint. Declan Connolly, who owns a number of properties in the neighborhood, said that he is not an absentee landlord, and that he has a full time property manager on staff who drives the street daily. “I’m as committed as anyone to resolving the issues...I know there is a large issue with parking, my maintenance people get ticketed too...these properties were built with small driveways.”
In terms of keeping tabs on the behavior of his renters, Connolly added that he has bi-weekly communications with his residents about expectations, weather related issues, and parking. However, when Connolly was asked outright, by resident Sophie Quest whether he knowingly has more than four unrelated people living in his units, he did not respond other than to say he came to the meeting to listen and that he thought the ordinance (regarding no more than four unrelated people living in a unit) was “unconstitutional.”
Ashley Woods, a representative for the property owner of 60 East Terrace said she rents to young professionals and hasn’t heard of any issues. Woods added that she is committed to making the neighborhood better and suggested creating an e-mail list of people that can be contacted when an issue arises.
But another East Terrace resident contended that he “is certain” there are more than four unrelated people living at her property. There are often 5-7 cars in the driveway and “they’re nice unless they’re having a party.”
Jennifer Harris, the landlord at 1 East Terrace, said she wanted to see more solutions being created instead of the “anger, blame, and labels” she was hearing. “Let’s think about what we haven’t tried,” Harris said.
Joe Spiedel, Local Government and Community Relations Director at UVM was present to explain some avenues the university takes to be proactive about student behavior in residential neighborhoods. Spiedel said that each fall, welcome bags are given out to students living off campus explaining how to live in a neighborhood, relating to parties, and noise. Neighborhood grants have also been awarded to help bring people together for the purpose of creating community gardens, for example. On streets where this has occurred, there has been a drop in incidents. “If you know someone, you’re less likely to create a disturbance,” Spiedel said.
Police Chief Whipple also responded to the issues of noise and parking. Whipple said that in the fall, his department could go door to door and canvas the neighborhood, welcoming the new renters. In regards to parking, he said they could continue to ticket and tow, but they also have to think about what that does to change behavior. “If someone gets a ticket ($5) for parking on the street, then afterward, they tend to park on the lawn. I’d almost rather they park on the street to preserve the green space,” Whipple said.
He also mentioned that the department receives very few noise complaints, but when they do, they require people from two different houses to complain about the issue before they can respond.
Resident Barbara Bull, who had initially brought her concerns to the council years ago, said she was under the impression that the evening would include hearing from the landlords regarding violation of the city ordinance which limits the number of unrelated people living in a residence.
Paul Conner, Director of Planning and Zoning said the ordinance is difficult to enforce, especially in light of the fact that South Burlington does not have its own code enforcement officer like Burlington. Conner explained that if his department receives strong evidence the ordinance is being violated, a letter is sent to the landlord with a notice of violation. Then, it is brought to superior court where they investigate the situation on a case by case basis. “It’s very difficult to prove,” Conner explained, “just having five cars in a driveway isn’t enough evidence.”
By the conclusion of the evening, the spreadsheet noting possible solutions to issues of parking, noise, property appearance and land use, was complete.
Council weighs in
At the June 1 city council meeting Shaw and Chittenden shared this information with councilors. Shaw reiterated that there were many issues to address, such as how to facilitate code enforcement and whether a neighborhood task force requested by residents should be developed. He also suggested they consider the merits of creating of an overlay district to address the special needs of this area and the development of an official rental registry.
Councilors were in support of a rental registry, but noted that it could take time and money to develop. If a registry were to be established, it may need to be implemented city-wide, not just in a particular neighborhood. Zoning Administrator Ray Belair, along with Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner will be meeting with Bill Ward, Burlington’s code enforcement officer to discuss process, and what has worked for his city.
“Your council is very concerned about what is happening in your neighborhood,” Nowak said, “you have been through things that shouldn’t happen...students need to know the expectations.”
Residents thanked the council for organizing the meeting and expressed hope that the issues they have identified will be resolved soon.
East Terrace resident Mary Lowder, who has attended all of the meetings on this topic has been concerned not only about the changing nature of the neighborhood, but most recently, about overflowing trash dumpsters. She said, “The council has a very good idea of the issues our (Spear St/East Terr) neighborhood has been trying to deal with. The council seems committed to working with us and interested in keeping up the momentum for action to help us.”
The minutes from the May 28 meeting will be posted on the front page of the City website: www.sburl.com.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent