Effort to Reform Williamsburg Noise Ordinance Put on Hold

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The Williamsburg City Council declined to act on requests by students at the College of William & Mary to change the city's noise ordinance. (Ian Brickey/WYDaily)
The Williamsburg City Council declined to act on requests by students at the College of William & Mary to change the city’s noise ordinance. (Ian Brickey/WYDaily)

A movement to amend the City of Williamsburg’s noise ordinance was silenced Thursday as the City Council declined to take action on the issue.

The council’s decision came after City Attorney Christina Shelton said changing noise violations to civil, rather than criminal, infractions raised potential legal issues regarding its enforcement.

Police are not allowed to enforce civil matters in Virginia except for specific exceptions approved by the General Assembly. Enforcement of noise ordinances is not currently one of those exceptions.

“There are serious legal question as to whether the police department could enforce [the noise ordinance] were City Council to change it,” Shelton said.

In a memo to the council, Shelton said the city had the authority to change the ordinance from a criminal offense to a civil one, but it would require tasking a different city office with the job of enforcement.

Shelton said there were “practical and safety reasons why the staff is not recommending that,” and keeping enforcement under police purview meant keeping noise violations a criminal offense.

A violation of the city’s noise ordinance is a class 2 misdemeanor, with a first offense punishable by a $300 fine. A second subsequent offense within 12 months of the first can result in a $500 fine. Any subsequent violation in the same 12-month period can result in a class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 12 months in in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

The push to amend the noise ordinance has been a controversial topic for years, particularly among students at the College of William & Mary, but was resurrected in February when a student-led political action committee, StudentImpact, began a Change.org petition and delivered it to the city.

Calling the ordinance “unreasonably” strict with a “disproportionate” effect on students, the students at first pushed for a loosening of the ordinance, raising the 11 p.m. noise limit to 75 decibels from 65 decibels.

Seventy-five decibels is about the volume of chamber music in a small auditorium.

The group eventually settled on reclassifying noise violations as civil matters, rather than criminal.

Mayor Clyde Haulman asked city staff to look into the issue, and City Manager Jack Tuttle reported 61 percent of noise complaints occurred in the city center area around the college, while 8 percent of complaints turned into guilty dispositions on average from Aug. 1 through Feb. 28 over the last three years.

The city’s classification of violations as a class 2 misdemeanor were in line with other college towns around the state, Shelton said, with Fairfax County classifying them as a class 1 misdemeanor, Blacksburg as a class 2 misdemeanor, and Norfolk as a class 2 misdemeanor.

“There’s good reason to call [the current policy] balanced and effective,” Tuttle said.

City Council members said they were open to considering changes to the ordinance, including decriminalizing first offenses of the ordinance, but said state policies, like the Dillon Rule, prevented them from doing so at this time.

The Dillon Rule is a legal principal which grants local governments only those powers specifically granted to them by the state.

Vice Mayor Paul Freiling suggested continuing a dialogue with the William & Mary Student Assembly, an idea Haulman supported.

“I think there are ways of doing that, and I encourage the Student Assembly and the StudentImpact to engage with us as we move through the summer and explore options,” Haulman said.

Freiling added city residents should be involved in any summer discussions.

Several William & Mary students who spoke at the City Council meeting said they understood the city’s decision, but reiterated their support for changing the ordinance.

“Legal questions aside, we maintain that decriminalization of the first noise violation is a moderate and agreeable step forward for our community, would further our community’s cohesiveness and help develop bonds of trust for students and residents living side-by-side,” William & Mary senior Scott Caravello said. “It’s our belief that such reform would make lawful behavior expected out of trust rather than compelled by the threat of a day in court.”

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