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With hundreds of complaints, mostly due to SSU students, police seeking crackdown, fines for landlords


When it comes to partying, Rohnert Park, of all places, is No. 1 in Sonoma County.

Behind the facade of family-oriented, Middle America suburbs, Rohnert Park has the dubious distinction of having more raucous get-togethers per capita than any neighboring city.

The reason, according to police, is the presence of Sonoma State University and the students who live off campus.

"Sonoma State University students are a majority of our (party) calls," said Rohnert Park Public Safety Sgt. Wulff Reinhold, who has documented the surge in party complaints that begins in August, when students return to school.

It's not quite "Animal House," and there aren't any videos yet of "Rohnert Park Gone Wild," but officers began to notice an increasing number of problem student parties beginning two years ago.

In 2004, Rohnert Park police logged 772 party calls, or 18 calls per 1,000 population. While Santa Rosa had more party complaints - 1,505 - it averaged only 10 calls per 1,000 population because of its much larger size.

Reinhold said some problem parties in Rohnert Park can involve 100 or more people in a house with accompanying "hooting and hollering. You mix in alcohol and music and it sure will upset neighbors."

But even five to 10 people on an outside deck at night can prompt a call for disturbing the peace.

"The more people crammed into a back yard or deck, the more sound carries," Reinhold said.

The increasing number of party-related disturbances has prompted the City Council to consider an ordinance to hold responsible the landlord of a noisy party house for the cost of police services.

The current ordinance only allows the city to bill the "responsible" party - basically, the host - if a social gathering requires a second or subsequent response.

Police also want to change the definition of a second response. Currently, it applies to more than one police visit on the same night.

The Department of Public Safety in February sought authority to bill residents who have two or more party calls over a six-month period.

But that raised objections from SSU students who say it could make it even tougher for them to find rental housing. Critics said it would be unfair to new tenants who move into a place where there was a problem less than six months before.

"Who's going to rent to students? Where will students live?" said Lindsay Anderson, a 21-year-old SSU junior whose M-section home was visited once last year on a noise complaint.

Even students involved in campus programs that promote responsible party hosting worry the ordinance will make landlords leery of renting to students.

"From our Associated Students' standpoint, that's a concern," said Jess Varga, a senior on the alcohol and drug advisory council. "The majority of students are not throwing these outrageous parties."

After discussions between city officials, SSU staff and students, the Department of Public Safety now is leaning toward an ordinance similar to Berkeley's, in which police can bill for services if they show up at a party house more than once in a two-month period.

Fines in Berkeley run from $500 for a second police response to $1,000 for the third and $1,500 after that.

Unlike Berkeley, there are no official fraternity or sorority residences at SSU, on or off campus. But students who belong to them will sometimes share a house.

Currently, about 28 percent of SSU's 7,979 students live in dorms at school. Another 1,081 live off-campus in Rohnert Park.

SSU doesn't have a reputation as a party place, despite a 1999 survey that ranked it No. 8 as a party school and No. 6 in the category "students almost never study."

The ranking by the Princeton Review, a private company that rates colleges, was met with general skepticism on campus at the time.

And Rohnert Park officials were taken by surprise by the recent statistics about the high number of police responses to loud parties.

"I didn't know about it until I read the report and I live here also," said Assistant City Manager Steve Donley. "The parties I have on my block are mostly a bunch of relatives coming over for Christmas."

SSU officials said the spike in party disturbance calls may be related to the younger student body because more freshmen are being admitted these days.

That trend is expected to continue over the next decade with a draft plan that could increase student enrollment by almost 6,000 students.

"Our agenda is to reduce high drinking amongst our students," said Rand Link, vice president for student affairs. "Our agenda is also to facilitate good neighbor relations between our students and neighbors in Rohnert Park."

In a report on the party issue, Reinhold said police are going after the party houses that generate three visits or more.

Dave Herman, an SSU sophomore, lives in an Avenida Cala house that fits the profile of the type of place police are scrutinizing.

Since Herman moved in in July, police records show a six responses to noise complaints, including four this year.

"We have a lot of people over once in awhile," said Herman, who explained he is on an athletic team and has lots of friends who want to hang out or play poker.

Anyone who's gone to college knows there are parties "here and there," he said.

When police show up now, he said, the party just breaks up. "Everyone knows to leave."

Rohnert Park officers acknowledge SSU students are not the only ones to blame. Some high school students, Santa Rosa Junior College students who live in Rohnert Park and even gang members have drawn complaints for large noisy parties.

But officers say that with SSU's enrollment projected to grow, they fear the problem will only get worse.

"If we don't have a tool in place, the workload may increase," Reinhold said.