The City of Williamsburg has charged the residents of nine houses with violating the three-person rule, according to Williamsburg Zoning Administrator Rodney Rhodes.
Rhodes said he could “speak with certainty” that at least one person in each house is a student at the College of William and Mary.
“I suspect that all of them have at least some students,” he said.
The three-person rule bars more than three unrelated people from living together in the city.
“I was able to gather information in the past couple of weeks that they were in violation… through a combination of tools: looking at leases, parking permits, College directory, in some instances, information from neighbors,” Rhodes said. “The same tools we’ve used in the past.”
Rhodes clarified that information obtained from neighbors largely constitutes “information regarding vehicles that are routinely parked on or near the property.”
Residents of the nine houses have been issued notices that they must comply with the law or face legal action from the city. To comply, the residents must sign an affidavit swearing no more than three people live in the residence and undergo an inspection by city officials. As a civil case, the burden of proof is not reasonable doubt, as in criminal trials, but rather “sufficient evidence,” a looser standard, were any cases to go to court.
The Student Assembly is already working to support those students cited by the city.
“What our plan is, we’re just trying to figure out how they figured this out,” SA President Sarah Rojas ’10 said. “We want to look at privacy issues, we want to look at how exactly the city was able to track this down, whether it’s neighbor complaints, whether it’s noise ordinance complaints, what exactly the process was that got the city to evict students.”
The SA is working with the College to secure on-campus housing and is willing to provide legal support for those allegedly violating the three-person rule. Student Legal Services, a group of law school students who provide free legal information to students at the College, has been given $30,000 by the SA to spend on a lawyer for cases of interest to the student body, according to SA Chief of Staff Charles Crimmins J.D. ’10.
The $30,000 was appropriated in December 2007, and according to Crimmins none of it has been spent to date. Coincidentally, the head of SLS, who decides how the money can be spent, is currently SA Vice President Ryan Ruzic J.D. ’09.
Crimmins said the funding may not be enough, considering the onslaught of violation notices.
“There’s obviously a fixed amount of money for [legal services], and there’s a lot of students now, but — and I don’t know what the senate would think — but I know that Sarah and I support funding more for lawyers if that’s the case,” Crimmins said. “When each of the houses cited are at least partially if not primarily occupied by students, and there’s nine houses, and they’re all cited at the same time, that’s really, really worrisome, and I think it’s a worthy cause that the student fee should be used for.”
Rojas said she hopes the situation will not end up in a courtroom.
“We don’t think it’s going to get to that point at all,” Rojas said, “but on the off-chance, there will be a student-run lawyer the Student Assembly will be providing.”
Crimmins defended the authority of the SA providing legal services for students to oppose the city.
“In the United States, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. Now here, we have a lower standard. It’s not reasonable doubt, it’s just … sufficient evidence. So it’s not as high a standard,” Crimmins said. “What I would say is, when you have nine houses that are cited at the same time and all of those houses are student houses, and the sufficient evidence standard is a standard that is subject to great discretion and judgment, I’m not willing to say that anyone has broken the law; I think the system is flawed.”
This most recent action is a dramatic example of the three-person rule’s flaws, Crimmins argued. He noted that the city code specifies the three-person rule’s intention is to protect the character of the community, and that an ordinance he believes is targeted at students is counter to that objective.
“This ordinance needs to be seriously reviewed. And I don’t mean getting a task force together and reviewing it. I mean it needs to be looked at for what it is, which is changing the characteristics of the community of which we are an integral part. If that means legal action, then it means legal action,” Crimmins said. “The three-person rule, by targeting students, destroys that which it is designed to protect; the Williamsburg community, of which College students are an essential part.”
Rojas said the issue will likely dominate a meeting already scheduled between city officials, city council members and SA leaders for Monday, Nov. 30.
“Is this a one-time enforcement issue or is it a trend?” Rojas said. “Around Thanksgiving time, students are going home, we have finals coming up, it’s a horrible time … it’s horrible timing for students to figure this out. We just want to know if this is going to be something that continues.”
The city has pursued legal action before, suing the residents of 711 Richmond Road in January. Information about cars parked outside 711 Richmond Road, the cornerpiece of the city’s action against its residents, was provided to the city by a neighbor.
The 711 Richmond Road landlords are to be tried in March and could face hefty fines.
Rhodes noted that any more houses found in violation of the rule will face legal consequences from the city.
“If I gather information that other houses are in violation, yes, I most certainly will [take action],” Rhodes said.