Before a new season of college parties, city council tightens noise ordinance

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

In time for college students’ return to Harrisonburg for the fall, the city council on Tuesday unanimously approved changes to the noise ordinance aimed at massive parties. The new amendments include tightening restrictions on party organizers from getting a new permit if they become repeat offenders — either for noise or underage drinking.    

Currently, college students and other groups that host parties of more than 100 people with sound amplifying equipment must apply for “mass outdoor social gathering” permits. 

Now, after Tuesday’s meeting, if a proposed event site has had two or more violations of underage drinking laws in the last 12 months, it is disqualified from getting a new party permit.

Similarly, those with repeat noise ordinance violations within the last 12 months were already barred from those permits, but the council’s vote sought to close a legal loophole. 

City Attorney Chris Brown explained that often in noise violation cases, the courts will rule “facts sufficient-deferred,” meaning that the evidence was sufficient to convict the defendant of a noise violation, but the conviction is deferred for 12 months and it can be dismissed if the defendant stays out of trouble. Without a conviction, it wouldn’t count as a strike against them for applying for a new party permit. 

But now, receiving two or more “facts-sufficient-deferred” rulings within a year for noise violations will disqualify party permit applicants.

Brown said these amendments came out of a meeting with two Harrisonburg Police Department patrol lieutenants, who said they found the existing ordinance “very useful” in keeping  large parties under control but saw room for improvement.

And as a result of Tuesday’s votes, party permit applicants must also include in their application a designated pick-up and drop-off area for taxis and rideshare services to prevent traffic backups around the party.

Another proposed amendment did not make it into the final package of amendments. It would have required permit applicants to include a plan to disperse attendees at the end of the party to prevent large crowds of exiting partygoers from blocking the streets.

“I just want to know how realistic this really is,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. “If we can’t do it at a high school football game, how do we expect them to do it?”

Brown acknowledged that the police department saw that amendment as “aspirational.”

Airbnb requests go eight-for-eight

The council also approved all eight requests Tuesday night for special use permits for short-term rentals like Airbnb properties. Among those eight was the third such permit on Summit Avenue near Eastern Mennonite University. 

Adam Fletcher, director of planning and community development, said the Planning Commission had voted four to two in favor of the application, and had discussed, “how many short-term rentals might be too many short-term rentals?”

“They want them in their neighborhood,” Council Member Chris Jones said. The council voted unanimously in favor of this and the other seven applications.

Also at the meeting:

  • The council voted unanimously to grant a special use permit to the Northeast Neighborhood Association for three parcels on Broad Street, the current home of Broad Street Mennonite Church, to be used as a future community center. Organization President Karen Thomas said that the church is “a cornerstone institution” in the neighborhood, and will soon mark its 75th anniversary of opening.
  • The council unanimously approved a subdivision request from Greendale, LLC, for a property on Greendale Road. The request will allow them to finish developing a tract of land, which straddles the county line, with single-family detached houses. Nine of the units will be built in city limits, with more being developed on the county’s side.

 

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