'Party house' bylaw pitched for Hadley, Amherst

Daily Hampshire Gazette

Friday, February 15, 2008

AMHERST - Off-campus student parties where alcohol is served can get out of control and disturb entire neighborhoods in Amherst and Hadley.

While police in both towns can issue noise bylaw tickets and impose monetary fines for unregistered kegs, the ability to really attack the problem remains limited.

Now, the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risking Drinking, a partnership between the University of Massachusetts and officials in Amherst and Hadley, is seeking to add one more means of solving the issue. The coalition would like Amherst and Hadley, perhaps as early as this spring's Town Meetings, to adopt the proposed "Social Host and Party House Nuisance Bylaw."

"This is working to give an additional and more pointed and potent tool for repeated party hosts," said Martha Nelson Patrick, coalition co-chairwoman.

Nelson Patrick said such a nuisance bylaw, which would likely levy fines against tenants living at these nuisance houses, has two purposes. First, it is a way to address parties where underage people are being served and sold alcohol. Second, it would quell neighborhood disturbances and address safety issues caused by them, such as crowds overflowing into the street and public intoxication.

The bylaw would supplement keg registration and open container bylaws in place in both communities. Nelson Patrick said it is also about getting students to understand community norms and expectations and dealing with what has been a long-standing issue for the towns.

"The two towns, through the coalition, are working together to send a consistent message," Nelson Patrick said.

Nelson Patrick said that attorneys are reviewing the proposed bylaw to determine whether only tenants would be fined, or whether landlords could also be held responsible for some of their tenants' behavior.

Last summer, Hadley began examining a similar bylaw, based on one in Narragansett, R.I., that would give town officials and police the ability to mandate that posters be put up at homes found in violation of the town's noise, open container and keg bylaws. These posters would have to remain up for 60 days at homes that have been the site of a police response. That nuisance bylaw would contain fines of $250 for the first offense, $350 for the second and $500 for the third and subsequent offenses.

Nelson Patrick said the bylaw that the coalition has drafted is based on about 50 similar bylaws that exist in Connecticut.

At a meeting earlier this month, Amherst Select Board member Rob Kusner said a draft of the proposed policy should be brought forward as soon as possible so there can be community discussion before it is put on the warrant for Town Meeting.

Kusner said he wants to make sure the nuisance house bylaw strikes a balance between the civil rights of the students and keeping the community a pleasant place for long-term residents.

Nelson Patrick said the university has implemented a number of policy changes in recent years to address excessive drinking, including more limits on the amount of alcohol those 21 and older can have on campus, parental notification and requiring an online alcohol education program for all freshmen.

Sally Linowski, the other co-chairwoman of the coalition, told the Select Board at a meeting this month that in 2003 the university began a public health approach to combat underage drinking. Statistics show that UMass has a high binge-drinking rate and many high-density, large volume drinking parties.

To fight this, the university has started the BASICS program, which stands for Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, and attempted to set the tone by not condoning high-risk drinking.

"We are now holding students accountable and getting them the help they need," Linowski said.

Already, Linowski said, there has been a 26 percent reduction in the binge-drinking rate.

But Nelson Patrick said it is the enforcement, even more than the education, that can really create an impact.

Police, of course, can already arrest people responsible for making excessive noise, for being minors in possession of alcohol and for having open containers of alcohol on public ways.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.