Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the Newark Police Department now has a new way to crack down on large parties that disturb neighbors.
On Monday night, city council unanimously approved an ordinance aimed at curtailing unruly gatherings. The vote came after a two-hour public hearing that saw impassioned arguments from both students who oppose the law and the residents who say parties are affecting their quality of life.
“This law, while not perfect, gives us more tools to address those specific few parties that we would all agree need to be addressed,” Councilman Mark Morehead said. “When they happen at the same house over and over, we need something different than we've had in the past to be able to address that issue and take care of that problem.”
The ordinance creates a new offense called unruly gathering, which will be triggered when police observe three or more nuisance behaviors at a residence where four or more people have gathered. Those offenses include minors consuming alcohol, noise, disorderly premises, people on the roof, more than 150 people present without a permit, obstruction of public rights-of-way, public drunkenness, fights, criminal mischief, public urination, littering, drug use, trespassing on neighboring property and any other conduct that “threatens the health, safety, good and quiet order of the city.”
The unruly gathering charge is a civil offense, which requires a lower burden of proof than a criminal charge.
The penalty for a first offense will be a $500 fine and 20 hours of community service, a second offense will be $1,000 and 32 hours, a third offense will be $1,500 and 48 hours, and a fourth offense will be $2,000 and 60 hours.
Anyone who planned, organized or supervised the party can be charged, as can the leaders of a club or organization that organized the party. If police can prove a person was responsible for the party, he or she can be charged even without being present at the event.
Police initially proposed a two-part ordinance, with one part targeting the party organizers and the other targeting their landlords. The landlord portion would have set up a three-strikes system, in which landlords of problem properties could lose their rental permit unless they agreed to evict the tenants.
However, city officials agreed to hold off on the landlord component after complaints from the Newark Landlord Association.
‘Old Newark desperately needs this ordinance’
Newark officials based the law on a similar law passed in Baltimore County, Md., to target partying near Towson University. The year before the law passed, Towson reported 51 party complaints. Two years later, that number was down to 12.
Residents of Old Newark, the neighborhood that includes Kells Avenue, Wollaston Avenue, East Park Place and surrounding streets, are hoping for similar results here.
Led by the Old Newark Civic Association, the residents have spent the last few months lobbying city council to address large “super parties” at rental homes in their neighborhood.
"[This ordinance] will restore some normalcy back into our neighborhood, which has been bombarded by super parties,” said Amy Roe, who leads the civic association. “Because the UD student body is growing while they are simultaneously eliminating on-campus housing, super parties could begin to impact even more neighborhoods."
Ron Walker, who has lived on Kells Avenue for 50 years, said partying in the neighborhood has gotten worse over the years.
“I’ve watched progressively deteriorating conditions,” Walker said. “I pray to God you will approve it this evening. Old Newark desperately needs this ordinance.”
Georgia Wampler, who lives on East Park Place, praised the police department for working with the residents to find a solution, adding that years ago an officer responding to a party complaint told her his best advice was to move.
“Today, Newark Police have taken the bull by the horns and worked on this for eight months,” Wampler said. “It’s such a big turnaround.”
Students feel targeted, left out of conversation
The University of Delaware students who packed into council chambers on Monday, however, criticized the law as a police overreach that will prevent them from having a good time.
“If this ordinance is passed, a lot of kids will transfer,” said UD student Mark McClafferty, who lives in a rental home in Old Newark. “There’s a rich history here of partying. This school has been here longer than anyone in this room today and so have many of the fraternities, which in my opinion are being targeted specifically today.”
He said he tries to accommodate neighbors by soundproofing his house before parties, noting the cops once busted a party he and his roommates threw for their parents on UD’s parents weekend.
“There are no opportunities for other fun in this town,” McClafferty said. “The parties will not stop. It will only increase tension between students, the cops and the neighbors. I promise you guys this will increase tension just a little too much.”
Meghan Mullennix, speaking on behalf of the UD Student Government Association, said she wished the city had included students in the conversation about the ordinance earlier, as officials did with residents and landlords. The lack of inclusion has caused resentment among students, she said.
"I don't think the city is out to get us, but that is a rhetoric and a belief that is persistent,” Mullennix said. “I just think that feeling that someone is out to get you rather than is working for the betterment of your common community is unlikely to lead to respectful neighborhood relationships."
She suggested the city tackle the root cause of student-resident friction by expanding internship programs and holding meet-your-neighbors events for students.
Allan Carlsen, president of the Interfraternity Council at UD, said he supports the intention behind the ordinance but believes the city should better enforce the laws already in place rather than create an additional offense.
“It feels to me the city would be trying to charge an individual twice for the same mistake,” Carlsen said.
Kasai Guthrie, a UD undergraduate who is running for mayor of Newark in the April 9 election, said the law “does more harm than good,” arguing that students won’t be able to afford to pay the fines and won’t have time to fulfill the community service requirements.
"The only way to solve parties in residential areas is to give students other opportunities and outlets,” said Guthrie, who has spoken publicly in the past about being arrested for throwing a party at his off-campus house. “Newark is different than any college town because it has no nightclubs or nightlife. The only outlets Newark has to offer are houses, which is why we were ranked the No. 1 party school in America. We only have parties."
An online petition against the law had accumulated more than 11,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon. The petition, which incorrectly claims the ordinance "effectively punishes any act of partying, enjoying weekends, or having fun around the University of Delaware," says the law will "ruin our school" and persuade potential students to go elsewhere.
"To the students, stand with me and fight this battle," organizer Charlie Hess wrote. "We came to this school for many reasons and the passing of this Bill is taking away from our college experience. If we want change, and we want to proceed through the rest of our college years with fun filled days, then we must stand up to our City Council and show them just how detrimental this Bill is to this School."
‘This is targeting people with bad behavior’
The law was undoubtedly written with student parties in mind, but council members emphasized that it applies to everyone in the city.
“I don’t care if they’re nuns or bikers,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said. “This is not always the students. This is about quality of life in our neighborhoods, and it addresses anybody that gets out of hand and is disrespectful to their neighbors.”
Councilwoman Jen Wallace said the law is targeting parties that spiral out of control, not normal get-togethers.
“You’re not at risk here for just having a party in your living room,” Wallace said. “This is about controlling behavior that I think no one wants to live next to.”
She encouraged any students who feel like they are being unfairly targeted by the police to let her know.
“I do not see this as targeting any particular group,” she said. “This is targeting people with bad behavior, whether they are students or not."
Councilman Jerry Clifton had a piece of advice for anyone worried about being penalized under the new law.
“If you don’t want to be charged with it, don’t do it,” Clifton said. “It’s too simple. Respect your neighbors and stay away from disruptive behavior.”