Getting a handle on noisy neighbors

Council wants to keep first warning but extend its range

Students let the good times roll at this house party. Nighttime noise is a big problem in Chico.

Students let the good times roll at this house party. Nighttime noise is a big problem in Chico.

file photo by kyle delmar

Anyone who has been kept awake at night by noisy neighbors knows it’s irritating. But what if it happens every weekend, or several times a week? Then it becomes agonizing.

In a town like Chico, with its many party-loving young people, late-night noise is a significant problem. When the Police Community Advisory Board held a series of meetings in Chico’s older neighborhoods last year to learn what residents’ biggest concerns were, noise was at the top of the list.

Officials at the Police Department decided that the current ordinance’s greatest weaknesses are that it calls for a written statement from the complainant and requires officers first to issue a written warning that comes with a 72-hour window. If the noise-makers offend again within that window, they can be cited; otherwise, no.

That opens the door to having a blow-out party every week, or even twice a week, without fear of citation. In 2010, the Police Department issued 410 written warnings, but from them issued only three citations.

So the police came up with a proposal for changing the ordinance. It had three parts: 1) remove the written-warning requirement; 2) remove the need for a written statement from the complainant; and 3) allow the police officer to issue a citation upon verification of the citizen’s verbal complaint.

On July 3, the City Council held a public hearing on the recommendations at which more than 30 people spoke. That hearing was continued to this week’s meeting, on Tuesday (Aug. 7), at which time a similar number of people spoke. Opinions ranged widely, from homeowners pleading with the council to give the police the tools they need to deal with noise, to musicians worried they might be cited for playing or practicing.

Before the hearing began, however, CPD Lt. Linda Dye explained that conflicts over noise arise all over town, but primarily in the “transitional” neighborhoods where both permanent residents and younger adults live.

Residents’ complaints are valid, she said. Instead of mandating a warning, the new policy would give officers the ability to use their discretion to choose whether to give a warning or issue a citation, she said.

This concerned Councilman Andy Holcombe, who has held all along that any ordinance should require a first warning.

At the July 3 meeting the opinion had been expressed that any new ordinance also should include ways to hold landlords accountable for their tenants’ behavior. Asked about that, Dye said the challenge would be “how to contact the landlord.” She suggested the department’s TARGET team might serve that function.

And Councilwoman Mary Goloff said she would like to see an escalating fine structure, such that a second offense would cost more than a first. Currently the fine is $259, including court costs, Dye said.

As occurred at the July 3 meeting, several people offered personal horror stories of trying to deal with bad neighbors who kept them awake at night, played music at high volume, urinated on their lawn, climbed on the roof and in general created a disturbance night after night.

As Melinda Vasquez, someone who has had to deal with such neighbors, put it, “Chronic noise forces people from their homes. It creates blight.”

Her husband, Ken Fleming, said the city “largely through neglect has allowed its heart to be trashed.” Noise devalues property, he said, and invites crime.

But others argued that it was unfair to target students and not to give them a warning when they are being too loud. Daniel Martinez said he thought the proposal was “discriminatory” against young people, students and the poor. “It’s a class issue,” he said, adding that as a musician “I would have no place to practice, no place to play.”

Several board members of the North Valley Property Owners Association weighed in on the landlord element, asking that their organization be involved in crafting its language.

Among the council members, it quickly became apparent a majority—Mayor Ann Schwab, Scott Gruendl, Goloff and Holcombe—was unwilling to eliminate the required warning.

In the end the council voted, 5-2, with Bob Evans and Mark Sorensen dissenting, to have city staff craft an ordinance along compromise lines proposed by Gruendl. It would require a warning be given and that it be in effect a longer period (six months was suggested), but also allow certain exceptions to the warning requirement (multiple complaints, for example). It would also establish a graduated fine structure and mandate that the ordinance be revisited in six months, at which time council will look at the landlord-accountability issue.