October 25, 2006

Students, Residents Clash on Noise Law

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Several years ago, a drunk Cornell student decided to take a swan dive from the balcony of a Collegetown house party. Upon arriving at the scene, members of Emergency Medical Services and the Ithaca Police Department were pelted by beer bottles and other assorted projectiles as they tried to help the injured partygoer on a Collegetown sidewalk. For Ithaca Police Chief Lauren Signer, the experience was an important one for area law enforcement.

“Three to four years ago, we had a big problem with behavior at Collegetown parties,” Signer explained, “the crescendo of which was when a guy jumped off a balcony. We knew then that we needed a noise ordinance in place, some way to control those actions that had become unacceptable to area residents and law enforcement officials.”

The noise ordinance, adopted this year by the Ithaca legislature, was one topic of conversation at last night’s meeting of the Campus-Community Coalition, a group that aims to resolve conflict between students and area residents through an open dialogue within the community. At the meeting, students were allowed to comment on the effects of the ordinance, a law that fines area residents for excessive noise violations. The law has already taken some heat from area students, and last night’s meeting provided much of the same.

“The ordinance has definitely raised tensions between students and permanent residents in Collegetown,” said David Bean ’07. “The law has just created more hostility between students and area law enforcement.”

Craig Sykora ’07 agreed with Bean’s assessment. Sykora, president of the Sigma Nu fraternity, claimed that the new law has held his house unfairly responsible for noise violations over the course of the semester.

“The neighbors are just complaining about noise in the street,” Sykora explained, “but the cops are like, ‘we’re just going to ticket you guys,’ since they can’t really find the people that were making noise in the first place.”

Other students commented that the new noise ordinance has lent itself to abuse among law enforcement officials. One student even said that he had been ticketed while watching Monday Night Football with his friends, and wondered whether the law was best used to disrupt that kind of activity.

In contrast to the seemingly unanimous student perspective, Tompkins County Sheriff Peter Meskill argued that the noise ordinance program has thus far been implemented fairly and successfully. Meskill, who along with Signer was present at the meeting, pointed to the overwhelming success of the new law enforcement program in toning down Collegetown parties, and argued that police officers are really not at all interested in handing out noise violations to drunken college students.

“These complaints of abuse are just incendiary,” Meskill said. “They just make the problem bigger. I don’t have time to sit on a street and watch out for somebody watching Monday Night Football. But we’ve had beer cans thrown at us, things like that. So we say, ‘if you’re going to raise hell, you’re going to pay the price.”

Permanent Ithaca residents, Meskill continued, have been asking for a law like this for a long time, and they have been relieved by its effectiveness.

“No matter who you are,” Meskill contended, “everyone has the right to protection under the law, and that’s what we’re here to provide.”

Some students, though, were concerned that the noise ordinance could jeopardize the relationship between students and permanent area residents, a relationship built on mutual communication and compromise.

“What happens to this idealism of communication if people are getting ticketed anyway?” Bean asked. “If I tell my neighbor that I’m going to have a party, and they’re fine with it, but then the police ticket me for a noise violation, that takes the issue out of the hands of the community and puts it in the hands of the police department.”

Indeed, at a meeting designed to foster communication between students and area residents, some attendees were more interested in creating a better framework of neighborly interaction than in involving the police department in area conflict.

“It seems like there is a real lack of communication between college students and permanent residents,” said Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward).

Townsend continued by encouraging students to speak with him and his fellow Council member, David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th Ward), to begin bridging the gap between students and permanent residents in Ithaca.

“We’re on the city council,” Townsend said, “so use us, because we definitely are a resource.”

Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson concluded the meeting by addressing the continued need to promote better community relations between students and their neighbors.

“We are trying to find a balance in our community,” Peterson said. “We’re used to having young people around, we like having them around, and we want to make this a great place to live for all of us.”