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Rohnert Park considers stiffer penalties for rowdy SSU parties


"That's pretty harsh, very harsh," said Alex Davis, 21, a Sonoma State University student who lives off-campus in Rohnert Park, as he contemplated a city proposal to double the penalty for people who throw parties that get too rowdy.

Rohnert Park, citing SSU students as chief offenders, is considering stiffening the punishment for the hosts of parties that get out of control.

"We are college students," said Zanin Mahic, 21, who lives with Davis and three other SSU students in the city's M-Section neighborhood, which is boiling with complaints about SSU student parties.

The City Council on Tuesday takes up a request by Public Safety Director Brian Masterson for an urgency ordinance to address what he expects to be a spike in disruptive parties as SSU's academic year begins.

University students who live off-campus "frequently host large gatherings and parties that can constitute a threat to the peace, health, safety or general welfare of the public," Masterson said in his report to the council.

The proposed ordinance, which would take effect immediately, would double the current law's 60-day penalty for rowdy parties, a period during which people cited for hosting an unruly gathering are prohibited from throwing another party.

"It's not going to remove or eliminate the parties, Masterson said, "but it will hopefully lend itself to more peace in the neighborhoods."

He said it also would help address the problem of "61st day" parties that are often thrown to celebrate the end of the penalty period. He had considered asking the council to approve a fine even for first offenses, but Masterson said he'd decided to hold off for now.

"We have a good rapport with Sonoma State," he said. "I'd like to try and work with them as we have in the past to educate them; hopefully, that might have a good impact."

In M-Section, a short distance from campus, residents have convened meetings of as many as 80 people to demand steps be taken to crack down on the problem.

"They're good guys," said a 19-year-old lifetime resident who asked not to be named, pointing to the house next door, "but their parties are out of control. It's not even the noise; it's the people outside, peeing on the grass, screaming."

He didn't want to be identified because, he said, "I don't want to be the bad guy, or get my car keyed."

SSU student leaders said they will ask the council to delay adopting the new ordinance so they can try to tackle the problems themselves.

"We're sending an email out to every off-campus resident highlighting the points" in the proposed and current ordinances, said Libby Dippel, 22, a fifth-year senior who is the student government's senator for community affairs.

"Part of the problem is that right now a lot of the students don't even understand that they could get a 60-day penalty," she said.

The message also will suggest ways to work cooperatively with neighbors, including providing advance notice of parties and asking people to call the host first with complaints rather than police, said Dippel, adding that she is sympathetic to frustrated residents' concerns.

"I'm trying to draw a line here, trying to make both sides happy, because I'm supposed to represent both sides here," she said. "Our point is that, basically, students don't know and could you give us a chance?"

Some residents said the time for that has passed.

On a street in sight of several houses rented by students, Richard York recalled a drunken student trying to batter down his door earlier this year. He gestured at one student house across the street. Once, he said, he counted more than 200 partygoers leaving it after police shut down a gathering.

"The problem is getting worse," said the 63-year-old York, an M-Section resident since the 1990s. "What we have doesn't seem to be working."

Public Safety Department statistics show that in the eight Augusts combined from 2005 to 2012, officers have responded to 741 complaints about out-of-control parties, according to a report prepared for the council. The number for the eight Septembers since 2005 is 746.

The city's current ordinance applies to gatherings of more than 10 people; it doesn't include a fine for first-time offenses, but it levies fines starting at $500 for violations of the 60-day ban. Property owners also can be held liable for violations of the ban.

"Sixty days is good; 120 is better," said Rick Muhlenbruck, 61, who pointed to three nearby student houses and described bass-heavy music that "cuts through the walls like they weren't there."

But Davis, the SSU student, who is a senior, said he has been cited and given the 60-day ban twice, and that the existing ordinance should be eased to allow larger gatherings.

"I mean, there's five people living here. Ten people is all of us with our girlfriends," he said, standing in the doorway of a two-story Monique Place house.

"One hundred people, you should definitely get a citation — I mean, we have a baby next door — but 50 people is a get-together," he said.

His roommate Mahic suggested there is an element of generational forgetfulness behind the proposal for a new ordinance.

"We're here for the education, but also for the college experience," said Mahic, a junior. "I guarantee you half the people on the council did the same stuff we're doing."

SSU's Chief Student Affairs officer, Matthew Lopez-Phillips, did not respond to requests for comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.